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Walk to the End of the World by Suzy McKee Charnas

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Allera was a Fem, and she knew the horrors of the Holdfast, where labor fems and breeding fems were treated worse than beasts.

She knew the legends of the free fems who roamed the scorched plains beyond the Wild.

And she knew what she had to do.

Walk to the End of the World is the first of the prophetic science-fantasies about Alldera, the fems and the world after the Wasting.
~~~~~
I fear the blurb for this edition of Walk to the End of the World is more influenced by subsequent books in the series than the content of this novel itself; an accurate plot summary would focus on Bek, as it is his quest and his character development on which the novel rests.

That’s not to say that the dystopian Holdfast is not portrayed in the book, or is portrayed as anything other than dystopic; but we only really find out how dystopic it is for the fems halfway through, as the first half follows Bek and his companions first to and then from Boya, where the fems are held, on a quest to find Bek’s father. Walk to the End of the World integrates an awful lot of information into this narrative, sometimes poorly in infodumps but on the whole well, as we’re shown the horrors of the life of the fems, or told about the life of the men through emotional narration rather than dispassionate exposition. Charnas’ world is a dark postapocalyptic one, rather darker than has become the modern trend, with gender-based repression, age-based caste structures, and racist indoctrination against now-dead non-white races the norm; that this is still a believable future is in itself horrifying.

The characters are products of their environment, and fascinating. From Kelmz, who embraces the lore of his society almost without question but comes to have his understanding challenged, to D Loya, who actively stands outside the normal social structures of Holdfast and defies their laws while embracing their doctrine; from Bek, ostracised and expelled, his mind probing the edges of doctrine, to Alldera, refusing both the overt culture of the men and the covert culture of the fems, Charnas has peopled Walk to the End of the World with characters whom, against our wills and our better judgements, we sympathise with, as she reveals more of them and develops their interiority as the novel progresses. It’s a fascinating piece of work, especially as the novel is split into sections each focusing on a different character, but shifting focus even within those sections; the jigsaw puzzle the reader builds up in their mind of these characters slowly comes together as the novel comes to its close.

The plot is also non-standard enough to both look like and distinguish itself from the standard fantasy quest narrative. Walk to the End of the World is focused, nominally at least, on Bek’s quest to find his father, whose name he knows despite the normal societal strictures against such knowledge; along the way they gain and lose companions, find old rivals and enemies, overcome obstacles and more, but Charnas makes this more than just a normal walking story. The emotions, rather than actions, of her characters are her focus; the approach to their thought processes is fantastic, and the way they’re all clearly revealed as people, and their different views of the world, form the real centre of the book.

Walk to the End of the World was strongly recommended for the Queering the Genre project by Elizabeth Bear, and she was definitely right; originally published in 1974, Charnas’ world is one with strict gender-sex equation, it’s true, but also with a universal (if situational?) homosexuality. Indeed, heterosexual relationships are seen as perversions of the proper norms of society; the men treat homosexuality as simply the standard, natural order of things, while the fems seem to have a similar attitude. Indeed, it feels rather ancient Greek in that regard; with disdain for heterosexual relationships due to the corrupting influence of the opposite sex.

All in all, Walk to the End of the World packs an awful lot of punch into its scant 250-odd pages; Charnas combines worldbuilding and character-writing to such fantastic effect that we’re really drawn into her dystopian vision of the future… why this isn’t a Gollancz Masterwork I’m never likely to understand!

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