Part sci-fi, part reimagining history, author Claire Eliza Bartlett shines light on how female empowerment and friendship coexist with the horrible disasters of war in her novel, We Rule the Night. Inspired by the Night Witches, female Soviet fighter pilots during WWII, the story focuses on Linne and Revna who become unlikely friends and soldiers.
Bartlett creates a world parallel to ours with its focus on industry and mechanization but all made possible through magic—a delightful take on the traditional tropes in the sci-fi genre! The magical system, although not described as such, is very creative. Reminiscent of the warp and weft in fabric making, magic is woven of two parts called the Weave and the Spark. The Spark is controllable by all people, and thus, accepted. The effects of manipulating the Weave are too dangerous so the few individuals that are able to handle it find themselves at the mercy of the government. But all this is a backdrop to the heart of Bartlett’s story: feminism, in a most believable way. It’s not dressed up in utopian kindnesses and sappy moments. It’s gritty. And those seeking honest interactions between women in their fiction will find it refreshing. These are not young women that are easy to swallow or easily categorized. Revna is a rebel using the outlawed magic, but suffers from a lack of bravery and self-doubt that such boldness would seem to stave off. Linne is outed from masquerading as a male soldier in the army. Preferring the organized life of the male regiment, she struggles to relate and then lead the female fighter pilots. From the beginning, they operate against the grain of expectation set by the state.
We open in the technologically struggling Union, with Revna, a factory worker, caught in the middle of a firebombing. A double amputee, she is considered a second class citizen and is left in her wheelchair to navigate through rubble and fire. Not that she needs it. She possesses prosthetics of living metal—sentient material imbibed with magic—but is forced to use the wheelchair by an uncaring supervisor. This begins the character’s theme for the rest of the novel: she is capable but must fight to prove her ability with nearly everyone she meets.
Throughout the book, Revna consistently struggles in realizing her own bravery. But when pushed, she’s not to be deterred nor easily give up on her own life as those around her have. Revna wants to be accepted but moreover respected. She is the foil to the other main protagonist, Linne, who is a fierce, yet cold, young woman. At times, she’s not only unrelatable in her irascibleness but also frustratingly one-note. She appears to hate women as much as her male counterparts do. From Linne’s perspective, her peers are silly, unfocused, deplorably vain, and decidedly feminine—worthy only of immediate dismissal. However, it’s her longing for comradery and a place in the world that brings out her humanity. Consummate soldier Linne analyzes every situation with a keen eye, ferreting out issues and complacencies, calling them out like a rifle spitting bullets. She fears Revna. What liability might she present in an emergency? She examines her regiment with disdain. How might their lack of training hurt their missions? The focus on the infighting highlights that most detrimental product of a patriarchal system—women hating women.
With toxic female relationships firmly entrenched, the audience experiences how that system permeates the inner world of young women. There is enough conflict to go around with a hostile foreign force pushing through every border and the sexism they endure within their own army. Infighting within the regiment more often than not takes precedent. At first, it’s annoying—the young women fight over men and style. I mean sure, tastes vary and we don’t all have to get along, but the basic survival instinct of “we’re all going to die if we can’t work together” is missing to an astonishing degree. As the story unfolds, we realize this is a purposeful choice in the narrative. It’s how this world is built. I’m sure readers will find this idea more than familiar. Keep people fighting each other and they won’t be able to look up and ask the real questions. Bartlett posits, who is the real enemy? Who is in charge and why? What systems need to be broken for the whole to not only survive but thrive? The Union is the imposing government setting stringent rules on behaviors and relationships. They abuse their citizens for information and use them as fodder for a seemingly endless war. 1984, anyone? (2019, anyone?!) Yes, the foreign enemy is real, but the leaders at home, with their boogiemen, are the true foe.
Ultimately, We Rule the Night is a character study. The plot moves slowly, interspersed with strongly crafted action sequences. At times it feels to lack its own spark, if only because the characters’ growth is saved to the absolute end. With the focus on Revna and Linne, the other women are kept one-note, which is a missed opportunity for exploring how dissent between women can be surmounted without compromising individuality. The two protagonists get there with each other, much to our relief. Yet, a wider focus would have satisfied more, that we can be the women we want to be and still relate to each other. While that point definitely sprouts, I look forward to the sequel for its fruition. I highly recommend giving it a read.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Ellie Smythe is a dedicated Sci-fi/fantasy enthusiast with a dash of romance and YA for good measure. Not to mention a poet and budding novelist! A SoCal resident transplanted from Austin, she’s on the lookout for the perfect book, a flawless cocktail, and scintillating conversation. Don’t get her started on the subjects of strong female characters, WWI & II, or astronomy or you may just find yourself in analytical heaven! When not pontificating (it does happen!), you can find her snuggled with her cat, enjoying a good movie, and probably crafting.