Books

The Women of Soleri: An Inside Look at Michael Johnston’s New Novel

 

Cover detail from Soleri by Michael Johnston/© Tor Books

It doesn’t matter that no member of the four kingdoms dominated by the Soleri Empire has seen their overlords. What matters is that Soleri power is unchecked; there is no challenging them. Arko Hark-Wadi, king of the Harkans, knows that his rule is tentative and subject to the whims of the Soleri god-king, Tolemy.

That is the political situation in Soleri (Tor Books, June 13, 2017) that the daughters of the Harkan king, Merit and Kepi Hark-Wadi, are born into. Merit is fierce and proud, a woman who should be queen. She serves as regent when her father is away, as he is at the beginning of the novel; after Merit’s mother left their family and abandoned her queenship, Merit has had to fill in as ruler. But even though she has all the political savvy and understanding a queen should, she is constantly reminded that she is not in charge. That she is secondary, a woman taking care of the throne for the king that is and the king to come. Merit focuses and channels this anger, this frustration, at her situation into proving that she is a capable heir and ruler.

Kepi, meanwhile, has the typical younger sister syndrome that is prevalent in fantasy novels. A variation on Arya Stark, she doesn’t have the beauty of her older sister, and in many ways that makes her more interesting. Kepi is hard. She hasn’t been able to rely on her looks to manipulate those around her; she’s just as much of a fighter as Merit, but she wields a different kind of knife. While the elder sister works through political machinations, Keri has turned her body into her weapon. She is a talented and physically capable warrior.

These two sisters are so different, and sadly, the circumstances surrounding them mean that they’re often at odds with one another. While readers may root for Kepi and Merit to find common ground, as women who live in a world that disrespects them, Merit ends up using Kepi as a pawn in order to further her own ends. While this is unsurprising, given that Soleri is the story of a royal family in a patriarchal society, it’s still difficult to see one woman treat another so badly.

On the other side of all of this is Sarra Amulet, one of the highest ranking women in the Soleri Empire. She is a high priestess, responsible for the religious well-being of the Soleri citizens who worship the Sun, but she’s also ambitious. She aspires to be the Ray of the Soleri Empire, the person who executes the wishes of the Soleri god-king Tolemy. It’s a lofty position for any person, much less a woman, but Sarra believes she has earned the role.

Johnston weaves a layered and complex story surrounding these three women in Soleri, based on Ancient Egyptian mythology and the Shakespeare play King Lear. The men in the novel play second fiddle to the bright, cunning stories of these women; Arko, the king, and his son (and true heir to the Harkan Empire) Ren are interesting characters to be sure, but they don’t hold a candle to Merit, Tepi, and Sarra. It’s in the hands of these three women that the most interesting stories and secrets of the novel play out. Despite the fact that men rule in the Soleri Empire, these women have found ways to determine their own fates.

It’s important to note that these women aren’t necessarily likable; Merit is selfish, often manipulating world events to satisfy her own desires. Tepi, meanwhile, refuses to play any part expected of her as a king’s daughter, looking only to her own interests. And Sarra holds dark secrets in her own past, ones that do not reflect well on her. But their likability isn’t the issue here. Too often, women are expected to smile, play nice, and be grateful for what they have. It’s so refreshing to see three imperfect, ambitious women who will not apologize for the fact that they want more out of their lives than the cards they’ve been dealt. Wanting power is not a crime. It’s whether you can deal with it responsibly that’s the issue.

Soleri appears to be the first book in a series, and it will be fascinating to see where these characters go from here. Johnston has created a rich world, and the secrets that are uncovered over the course of this book have the potential to change everything—not only for these characters, but for the entire world around them. It’s intriguing enough to want book two, and beyond.