A Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer
In a frontier land on some other world, a close-knit family of outlaws lives in the same sort of manner that you’d expect such a family to live in the American Wild West. They’re tough, they wear cowboy hats and ride horses, they speak coarsely, they curse and brawl, they shoot and hunt, they drink whiskey and smoke cigars, they protect their spouses… Oh, and I’m talking about how the women behave.
In A Brother’s Price (2005), Wen Spencer twists this classic Wild West tale by switching the genders. Because, in this world, male babies are rarely born alive, there is a gender role reversal. Women have the power, they rule, they do the dangerous jobs, and they compete for men (a limited resource). They choose, own, shelter and protect their men. Men are kept in the house where they do the cleaning, cooking, and caring for children. They must dress modestly so they won’t be molested by horny women, and sometimes they wear veils and bonnets. They collect lace and china for their wedding chests.
We follow one such man, a pretty teenager named Jerin who is about to be married off to a neighbor who he despises. His life is changed one day when he helps to rescue a princess from drowning. (Don’t forget: the princess is not the kind of princess you’re thinking of. She was hunting bandits when she was injured and dumped in a river.) Jerin takes her home and begins caring for her. When her sisters find out where she’s been taken, they descend on Jerin’s home. With all those horny princesses around, Jerin’s sisters are worried about protecting his virtue and his reputation.
A Brother’s Price would be a sweet and fun (but vapid) romantic story without the gender reversal, but Spencer gives it an amusing speculative twist. As a feminist, I was surprised at how many times I had to reorient myself in the story as I continued to falsely make assumptions about the characters based on their sex. (For example, in one scene there are stevedores unloading a ship and I was momentarily jolted when I realized they were women.) Shame on me! I am frequently reminding my family members not to do this, and yet I couldn’t stop myself.
I suspect that many readers (especially men) will find Spencer’s premise hard to credit and her execution heavy-handed. There is no doubt that many sex differences are biological (e.g., aggression, libido) so it’s extremely unlikely that a world where women ruled would be like the Wild West with cowgirls instead of cowboys. Women would run things differently. But still, it’s fun to imagine, and Spencer’s point is really to examine and poke fun at our own society’s assumptions and practices regarding gender roles. I enjoyed thinking about this. It seems ridiculous for men to dress themselves up in frilly clothes and veils to appear attractive, modest, and biddable, yet isn’t this what women have been doing throughout all of human history? Why is that not ridiculous?
My favorite line: “Noone is going to marry you for your dic-tion. They’re going to marry you for your dic-.” (She gets cut off by her sister.)
Tantor Audio’s new audiobook edition of A Brother’s Price (January 2019, 9 hours long) is narrated by Travis Baldree who gives a nice and convincing performance.
This sounds fun! I’ve enjoyed other Spencer books. She was at the HawaiiCon I attended; what a neat person!
This does sound like a fun thought experiment!