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Endurance by Jay Lake

In many ways, Endurance by Jay Lake (TOR, 2011) is a slightly unusual book for a man to write because, at its heart, it’s an exploration of feminist issues. Not, of course, that this choice of subject matter bars a man. Our culture should always embrace contributions to intelligent debate, no matter what their source. But it’s interesting that a man should elect to explore the persistence of patriarchal power. The theme introduces itself quite innocently in Green, the story of a young woman taken from her home and then groomed to make her suitable as a consort for the Factor. This process assumes men do not find women acceptable in their natural state. Women only achieve value in a patriarchy when they have been taught the behaviour men want and expect. In our own society, there are complex systems for socialising women and teaching them how to dress and behave, and so become attractive to men. The implicit assumption is that women’s primary roles are to give men pleasure and, when the time comes, sacrifice their independence to become homemakers for the children. In the world described by Jay Lake, however, there are layers of divine beings who may, to a greater or lesser extent, interfere in or direct human affairs. Matching the human world, some of these divine beings take on a feminine aspect and, through their presence, empower the women who follow them. Indeed, some of the followers are trained to become the finest of warriors. They are role models for the young and may reach out to society in a policing function. Not surprisingly, this access to physical power is offensive to many men. Indeed, the more women assert the right to independence, the greater the pressure to force women back into a submissive role and bring down the female gods who would support them.

The secondary theme is a discussion of what it means to be a mother. Obviously, Jay Lake cannot write about this from personal experience. I hope he will forgive me for speculating that it might be a way for him to deal with the emotional issues surrounding his cancer. Although there’s a vast difference in outcomes between a benign pregnancy and malignant cancer, both processes involve growth inside the body. As Green describes Federo, “He carried the god Choybalsan as a woman carries a child beneath her beating heart.” I will stop such thoughts at this point. Whatever the motivation, I wish Jay Lake well. He’s a writer of great talent so I hope he endures many more years and produces more interesting books for us to enjoy.

Jay Lake being inconspicuous

Having begun in Green with what I would consider to be a fundamental misstep, we venture out into the second volume. For now, let’s leave the link between the first and the second books as being nothing more than the question of births. Through her agency, Green has given life to Endurance as a god. She’s a theogenetrix. His presence is as calm and unchanging as the natural world. No words are necessary to capture or explain deep thoughts. As the spirit of an ox grown into something more, there’s only peaceful acceptance. The sun may beat down, but he can be a source of shade to those who stand in his shadow and seek protection. If it rains, a few may sit or lie beneath him and find shelter. He’s the physical embodiment of “endurance” no matter what goes on around him. Green has also begun to take an interest in funeral rites. Preparing the spirits of the newly dead is comparable to the activity of a midwife. It prepares the dead for rebirth into the afterlife.

For Green herself, there’s also a physical pregnancy. Having birthed a god, she’s now readying herself to add another human to the world. This means physical changes. It’s affecting her balance and general mobility. There’s morning sickness and binge eating. She can still fight, of course, but now she’s slightly more cautious. As she goes about Copper Downs, she first clothes herself as an assassin for, as the carrier of new life, is she not also the embodiment of death? For a few hours, she wears more feminine clothing, but still gets into a fight. Her disposition has always been to live in the emotional moment. Given her training as a warrior, she naturally reaches for her knives when any threat is perceived as real. Then she reverts to dressing as a boy. When males are young, testosterone flows, but the ability to fight is limited by lack of strength. Fortunately, Green has her knives to compensate. The male clothing she adopts is not a denial of her femininity as such. Rather it represents an accommodation between herself, the city and the people she must meet. It also represents an evolution of attitude at a metaphorical level. If first she is death, then publicly acknowledges herself as pregnant, the final step is a move into a more indeterminate gender characterisation. To protect the baby, she must temper her aggression, but it’s still more comfortable to see life from a perspective that, when people meet her, they perceive her as male.

In her relationships both with humans and gods, she sits on the fence. She lives across the gender roles as a person and a lover. As between gods, she finds herself in a position to bargain for the greater good. At both levels, she remains a mother. Hence, just as she hopes to live long enough to give birth, she also hopes to see the city of Copper Downs reborn and, through that rebirth, protect the gods who would empower women around the world. In this, there’s also an irony. For any society to not only survive but also prosper, there must be balance. This includes the issue of gender equality. Hence, though it might pain a woman to take up her knives in defence of anything male, she must also fight in defence of any male god under attack. Hopefully, Endurance himself needs no protection as a god because he’s much more tied to the place where he was born into divinity. Other gods may be more vulnerable because they are of older stock and manifest more generally.

So Endurance proves to be a powerful novel as our heroine Green comes to occupy a more maternal role in her relationship to the people of Copper Downs. She accepts the need to think more carefully before she acts. Because she cannot be everywhere, she must trust others and delegate tasks to them. Through this she learns that some problems can be solved without the need for actual violence. Hence, when mustering her forces, she creates priorities in their disposition. Not that this slows her down in any significant way when the need arises. But she is only one and the city has many men and women, tulpas and ghosts, gods and goddesses, all of whom need a good outcome in this conflict. This is a most engaging fantasy and well worth reading!

The artwork from Daniel Dos Santos is suitably dynamic.

For reviews of other books by Jay Lake, see
Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh and
The Sky That Wraps.
Jay Lake and Nick Gevers edited Other Earths.

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