Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 09.41.53From the start, we know not everything will be alright. Maresi, the novel’s eponymous young narrator, tells us that she does not want to bring it all up again–the smell of blood, the sound of crunching bone–and that it is difficult to talk about death. Nevertheless, she must write, so that the events she witnessed, and in which she played a key role, will not be forgotten.

Even with this beginning–and, two or three pages later, a character’s premonition of danger at the sight of a ship’s sail–the first half of Maresi still feels like the part of a story an author doesn’t normally describe in much detail: the epilogue in which the characters, having experienced unimaginable hardships, finally attain a life of peace and serenity. A bit like Tolkien writing a story set in the Grey Havens, where Frodo and all the elves and a bunch of other characters travel to at the very end of LOTR. Or like Jo Walton’s Among Others, which follows the life of a girl after her epic confrontation with her sorceress mother, which resulted in the death of the girl’s twin. Nothing much would happen in the Grey Havens, nothing much happens in Among Others, and, for a while, nothing much Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 09.43.48happens in Maresi. The characters lead a cozy, comfortable existence within the walls of the Red Abbey, on an island inhabited entirely by women. They milk goats, learn about the sciences and the arts, cuddle cats, collect shells and driftwood, dance in the moonlight, and eat the most delicious-sounding food–goat’s cheese and bright red nirnberry sauce, sesame biscuits sprinkled with cinnamon, seedy nutty nadum bread, and so on. Every now and then, a character will have a flashback to their traumatic past, before they lived at the Abbey–the Hunger Winter when Maresi lost her sister, the brutal patriarchal customs of Jai’s fatherland–but these do not last long, and in the next chapter they’re all back to their carefree lives. It would almost be boring–and my mind did wander off occasionally–if the Red Abbey didn’t sound like such a delightful place to be. I’d definitely add it to my mental list of the fictional worlds I’d gladly swap for this one, if I wouldn’t be automatically excluded from it by virtue of my sex.

Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 09.43.11Of course, eventually, stuff does happen. Jai’s father–a misogynistic brute who has already killed her sister–will stop at nothing to get her back, and punish her for bringing dishonour to his name. And once the Red Abbey is in danger, all that time we spent learning about its lore and rituals and customs and people means we are all the more terrified at the thought that this world might be tainted or even destroyed.

However–this is no Game of Thrones. Maresi is unafraid of exploring the darker aspects of life and human culture–death, domestic abuse, patriarchal oppression, femicide–but it is never bleak for the sake of being bleak. I’m not going to spoiler anything, but I will say that the women of the Red Abbey know how to put up a fight. With the exception of Maresi herself, it is at no point obvious who will live and who will die, and it is seldom obvious if or how characters will manage to get out of particularly difficult situations, but–the women of the Red Abbey know how to put up a fight.

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this book–in fact, after reading the first 90 pages or so in fits and starts (because of my current busy work schedule, not because of any failings on the book’s part), I subsequently read the remaining 160 all in one go. And now, I will get my hands on the second volume in the trilogy, Naondel–which I think is a prequel, telling the story of the Abbey’s founding. I asked my library to order it–hopefully it won’t take too long.

Finally, I’d recommend checking out two blog posts–written by Maresi’s translator, Annie Prime, the first one is about the rules of translating fantasy, and the second about the techniques. The second specifically mentions a bunch of things to do specifically with Maresi, and inspired me to read it in the first place.

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