I’ve had a beaten-up copy of The Shattered Court lying around my apartment for some time now, and I finally decided it was time to give it a read. The book is the opener to a series, and introduces a Britain-based country with its own unique magical system. However, my interest in the book quickly turned to frustration and disappointment as I learned more about how the magic worked. While the series attempted to say some challenging things about gender and magic, it fell down harder and harder every time it tried.
In this series, all women have the potential to manifest earth magic powers on their twenty-first birthday, but women in the royal line tend to be especially powerful. When a terrorist attack hits the capital city, though, our protag Sophie, a minor noble, has to run away with a palace guard to avoid getting swept up in the catastrophe. However, it just happens to be just days short of her twenty-first birthday, and so she misses the opportunity to have the Ais-Seann, the formal coming-of-age blessing, at the temple of the state religion. And in the first heady flush of her powers blooming, she ends up sleeping with the guard she escaped with.
Sophie is sensible enough about sex to know that this won’t necessarily ruin her chances of a good marital match – she knows, for example, that women don’t always bleed the first time they have penetrative sex, so that alone won’t disqualify her marriageability, and so she figures she can cover up her indiscretion and no one will be the wiser. However, it’s once she gets back to the capital that things get… odd. When she arrives, she is sped to the temple to be Ais-Seann’ed, but she’s surprised and embarrassed when the blessing of the goddess “rejects” her. We quickly learn that royal women who manifest powers are bound to the goddess on their twenty-first birthdays such that a large amount of the power they naturally have is diverted to the temple and effectively locked away from their use. They’re bound again, to their husbands, upon their eventual marriage, making their spouses a passive drain on their powers as well. Men also have their own, different magical abilities, unrelated to the health benefits they get from being bound to women with magic.
But this Ais-Seann binding only works on women who have yet to have penetrative sex; since Sophie is no longer a virgin, it won’t take, and everyone who’s in the know knows why –although, as we find out, most people don’t know why. The majority of the women who have been so bonded seem to have no idea that they can never live up to their full potential, or that their Ais-Seann was anything but a perfunctory blessing. As the story progresses, the people around Sophie are astonished and sometimes disturbed by the depth of her power and by the variety of magics, She is able to use not just earth magic, but blood magic (which is supposed to be an exclusively male realm, as earth magic is considered female) and possibly other types as well, and it seems clear that she is able to do these things because she wasn’t bound during her Ais-Seann as she should have been.
There’s so much confusing and wrong here in terms of worldbuilding that I am not sure where to start. First of all, this is a society that believes in a goddess-oriented monotheism, has women as the major powers in the church, and allows women to rule alone as Queen without question. Why would it be so deeply patriarchal in nature? If a male-dominated religion looked at a country where the women were most powerful magically and were like “let’s come up with a way to subjugate them”, that would make a lot more sense, but instead, we have a world where women (the temple’s devotees are all female, with a female high priestess) worship a woman, but also actively work to keep women second-class citizens, and there’s no real reckoning with this. Her own love interest acknowledges, for example, that there’s a double standard for men and women where men are allowed to be sexual before marriage and women aren’t, but doesn’t go the extra step to condemn that. He even pushes back against accepting that it’s unfair when she finds out that he had slept with the widowed queen before he and Sophie had had their tryst.
“I’m not a monk, Sophie. I won’t apologize because it’s unfair that men get to do things before marriage that women cannot. And I won’t apologize for having a lover before you had any claim on me whatsoever.”
“You should have told me,” she said, hearing her voice go shrill. She couldn’t entirely dispute his point, but that didn’t change the fact that he hadn’t told her the truth.
(That sound you hear in the distance is me, screaming at the sky.)
Secondly, jumping off of that, if maintaining one’s virginity ahead of one’s Ais-Seann was so important to their society, why did Sophie have no idea of that? The idea that every single woman in this country would remain chaste until they were twenty-one without some kind of really terrifying and well-known culture of consequence to back that up is incredibly laughable, and leads to Sophie essentially being punished (and magically slut-shamed!) for breaking a rule she didn’t even know existed. Hell, even if it were well-known that there were “dangerous” consequences to sex before marriage, I’m sure there would still be plenty of women who did it anyway.
And finally, here’s the crux of the problem: while the story makes an attempt to talk about the subjugation of women’s power based on a double standard about sexuality, it fails because it still hinges on whether a woman is a virgin or not, and makes that virginity a binary, penis-penetration-centered state that can be determined by a magic spell. It’s further frustrating that Sophie ends up fleeing the court at the end of the book rather than staying to foment change, because it means that she isn’t using her knowledge to help anyone else avoid the fate that she’s been set — specifically because explaining how she found out about the binding would involve explaining that she’d had sex outside of marriage.
Instead of challenging a patriarchal standard through its magical worldbuilding, The Shattered Court creates a universe that simply pokes at patriarchy, acknowledges that it’s there even though it makes no sense for it to be there in its worldbuilding, and then shrugs and carries on with a different story altogether. The series is ultimately meant to span four books, so maybe these issues will be addressed in later volumes. But I found myself so turned off — no pun intended — by this first book that I have no intention of reading further to see if the series redeems itself.
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