Author: N.A. Sulway
Publisher: Tartarus Press
Publication Date: 2013
Genre: Fantasy (with a dash of steampunk and romance)
Price: $4.99 (ebook), $19.00 (trade paperback)
Reviewed by: Julia Dvorin
Hello fellow Heroines of Fantasy readers! Julia here again, this time with a review of Rupetta by N.A. Sulway. Nike Sulway is an Australian author and Rupetta only came to my attention because it won the 2013 TiptreeAward, which is an annual award given to the SFF work that best expands or explores our understanding of gender. (Ancillary Justice, which I reviewed back in June, was also a finalist for the 2013 Tiptree.)
Rupetta is the story of a centuries-old clockwork automaton whose mechanical heart must be “wound” through the touch and the psychic bond of a “Wynder”, ideally (but not always) a female descendant of the original maker. Her existence, and more specifically her immortality, sparks a religious and political movement in which she is elevated to a deity, and which is expressed by its followers in the “Rupettan four-fold law” (which reminded me somewhat of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics). Rupetta’s story is told in two plotlines which become increasingly intertwined: one as a ruminative history told by Rupetta herself to her love, and one which follows the story of Henri, the Obanite Historian-in-training who will become that love.
Sulway’s world is interesting, with scholarly orders of Obanite “Penitents” who study history and whose highest goal is to replace their organic hearts with clockwork ones so that they too can become (almost) immortal, and a complex religious/political history full of heretics and secrets which get uncovered and slowly come into focus throughout the book. There is a tension between those who want humans and their lives to become more mechanical and orderly (like the clockwork Rupetta), and those who still believe in messy, organic ways of living close to the earth and the making of things by hand (this tension reminded me strongly of the central conflict between groups in Heather McDougal’s book Songs for a Machine Age, so if you liked that you’d probably like this too, and vice versa). Henri, one of the central narrators, is studying to become an Obanite Historian, but for her thesis she is researching the “Salt Lane Heretics”, a pair of women revolutionaries who years ago started a school for children that prioritized interacting with nature and taught through old-fashioned techniques of gardening, cooking, and farmsteading. The Salt Lane Heretics were shut down by the ruling powers (though it’s never exactly explained how or when) and years before Henri arrives on the scene, their stuff is squirreled away in untidy boxes and heaps just in case it might some day be of interest to any future historians. However, until Henri comes along the implication is that (like much of women’s history in our own world) it’s of such minor importance or interest that no one has bothered to do anything with it and even sorting the stuff into archival preservation standards is more of a waste-of-time punishment than actual Historical work. But of course what Henri begins to uncover in the archives and in her research becomes more and more interesting—and then dangerous—as she gets farther into it. (Disclaimer: I am a sucker for books about academics, especially academics who realize ‘hey, this whole system is flawed and hiding stuff’, so these were some of the most vivid parts of the book for me.)
I understand why this book was intriguing to the Tiptree Award committee. It is full of complex, strong women characters who drive the plot and express the central themes, but it also takes the somewhat familiar idea of a sentient “android” who struggles with emotions and comparisons to/effects on humanity, and expresses it in a way that feels particularly feminine. Made by a woman in a way that includes traditionally “feminine” craft forms like sewing and weaving, and given female form, Rupetta is a feeling being, though sometimes those feelings express themselves in a way that make it clear she is not human. It also contrasts and addresses the tensions between the traditionally male, emotionally-abstracted and intellectualized “life of the mind” and the traditionally female, embodied and emotionally-rich “life of the hands”.
This book also spends a lot of time playing around with themes of religious fundamentalism and the ways in which politics and religion intertwine and shape culture in sometimes unexpected ways over time, but ultimately for me even though these themes are interesting ones, this interplay was not the novel’s strong point. The strong point for me was the insightful and beautifully written character development and romance(s) between the characters, especially since many of those romance elements were centered on female-female relationships and this is something I don’t think we get enough of in fantasy fiction (though this is changing). In general, I also really admired the author’s writing throughout the book—her use of language is really lovely.
On the maybe “not so great” side, at least for me as a reader: there’s a lot of what feels like a refusal of the author to directly clue the reader in to the world’s history and current religion/politics (instead, like many an SFF book, we are left to glean what hints we can through mentions dropped here and there). When that coyness in worldbuilding is mixed with a narrative that jumps around in time and plot intrigues that start to get much more complex as the book progresses, it wound up being a little frustrating to me. I appreciate tight POV, a little mystery and slow reveals, but I would have appreciated even more a few well-placed infodumps I could refer back to as needed.
In summary: you will like this book if you like gorgeous prose, a little steampunk and lesbian romance in your fantasy, and if you enjoy some thoughtful exploration of issues of immortality, religious history, and tech-vs-organic tensions.