Content Warning: one character uses expletives to label women and describes sexual situations during which he becomes forceful (rape).
Rosalie Morales Kearns delivers a timely novel for the #MeToo movement. Kingdom of Women, published by Jaded Ibis Press in December 2017, is summarized as a near-future in which women take revenge on men for their sexual wrongdoings. Women seek refuge and peace in a place called “Erda, that feminist utopian experiment in what was formerly North Dakota.” At the center of the novel is the first female priest. While her ordination suggests change, she’s distracted by a sexual relationship with a college student who a rapist. The novel covers several decades as the United States government and “patriotic” groups decide to attack Erda, a plague ravages the country, and the female priest suffers from visions and PTSD.
Kingdom of Women starts with an interesting main character: Averil, the first female priest. She was supposed to be ordained in a group of 23 women, but 22 were massacred the day of the ordination — Averil was spared because she showed up late. Something of a mystic, Averil sees her “sister-seminarians” and other Religious who are dead. But I wanted to know: did she always see spirits? How does she utilize their presence, or listen to it? I wasn’t always sure how Averil felt about the death of those 22 women, how it affected her, and in what way is the reader meant to connect some dots from Averil’s trauma to her present behaviors. For instance, why she chooses to have an affair with a college student named John who is brilliant, but a rapist and predator. Is Averil trying to punish herself for living?
To me, the more interesting character is Catherine Beck, a military woman whose behaviors, thoughts, and actions are so calculated and precise that her presence on the page excited me. Catherine learns of John, so she earnestly threatens to kill him, causing him to leave town. Often, the omniscient narrator gives clues about what will happen in the future. In an earlier scene, Catherine recognizes John, and the narrator forewarns that if Catherine had killed him right then, so much turmoil in the future could have been avoided.
This warning set me up to think that John would destroy Catherine or Averil, or be the leader of the group attacking Erda. But that story never plays out, and I felt uncertain as to where the narrative arced. Much of the book describes small events in the 38 years during the war between Erda women and men’s groups, including rumors and confirmation of a plague, rounding up men without trial, and Averil’s movements from one military camp to another to serve odd jobs.
I feel there is a possibility that Kingdom of Women was perfect for a trilogy instead of one book. The relationship between John and Averil felt unexplored. The war years are summarized, so we don’t see women debating how to move forward with a women-dominated society or on the battlefield. The third act would include how Averil’s reputation proceeds her, and communities view her as a prophet, but in this abbreviated version I wondered why. She often stuck to washing dishes or walking for miles. Her sermons are rarely on the page, which could have been evidence for why listeners are so moved.
Kingdom of Women is like a packet of seeds waiting to be planted in a garden: the potential is exhilarating.
I want to thank Rosalie Morales Kearns for sending me a copy of Kingdom of Women in exchange for an honest review.
Here are some reviews of Kingdom of Women from other great venues:
VIDA calls the novel “glorious” but “difficult to summarize.”
Kirkus says “Kearns writes in a precise prose” and that she “she does not rely on premise alone to sustain the book.”
Foreward Reviews notes, “The novel itself, however, is a wild portrait in extremes, allowing off-center characters to fuel a parable for modern times.”