When I read the Goodreads description for The Warrior’s Path, book one in Catherine M. Wilson’s When Women were Warriors series, I knew I had to review it for our site. Set in a fantasy world very much like Beowulf’s England but minus the patriarchy (and Grendel monsters), this book is essentially an exploration of women’s experiences and relationships.
Tamras has gone to the Hall of her people’s leader, Lady Merin, at age 16 as is customary in her world. She becomes a companion (like a pre-apprentice/handmaid) to a warrior named Maara, an outsider with a brusque personality that no one but Tamras seems to understand. Throughout the course of the book, Tamras and Maara learn more about themselves and about each other as they fulfill the duties of Warrior and Apprentice and move through the seasons.
When building her world, Wilson gave it a definitive feminist spin. Tamras’ people are a Mother-goddess worshipping people with female leaders and a history of honoring women’s strength. Their stories begin not with “Once upon a time…” but with “In ancient days, when only women were warriors…” At the current time the book is set in, there are male warriors too, but they have separate lodgings outside the main hall and rarely feature in Tamras’s story.
The relationships between women are varied and complicated. In this novel, Wilson explores the bond between a young girl and her mentor, something akin to the mother-daughter bond, but also more like friendship and even with some sexual tension thrown in. Tamras’ relationship with her friend Sparrow is another interesting one, with many nuances that evolve throughout the novel. They begin as friends, explore and take comfort in each other physically but don’t consider themselves lovers, and then share a very special moment that enhances the tenderness between them. Yet their friendship is always paramount, and they are depicted not as soulmates but two people so comfortable around each other that they can take pleasure in each other while they wait for a different kind of love.
Belonging versus loneliness is a major theme of the novel, tied up intricately in the themes of family and friendship. In this female-run society, community is everything. Relationships contribute to social status, and Tamras is constantly reminded to make friends from strong families. Yet Tamras’ warrior Maara is an outcast among the household, orphaned and from a faraway land. Growing up without a mother and feeling abandoned by her has caused Maara to disconnect from the Mother goddess and even induces physical symptoms like sleepwalking. Tamras’ connection to the Mother goddess is strong and her spirituality is very well developed for a 16-year old, perhaps due to the support from all the women in her family and community. Through Tamras, Maara finds a way to connect with the group and eventually finds a place for herself among them. Wilson also explores the theme of jealousy, the many reasons and causes for it, and how it can be mitigated with self-awareness and understanding.
I found this novel to be quite well-written and well thought out, with a unique premise and good story. I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an epic-fantasy-ish novel with feminist and LGBTQ themes.
The e-book of this first installment of the series is free on the publisher’s website, the author’s website, Amazon, and several other sites. You can also learn more about the author, read her blog, and order signed copies of her books from her site.