Thursday, July 7, 2005

Walls of Westernfort

Jane Fletcher
Bold Strokes Books
1933110244, $15.95

For Natasha Ionadis, the rules of life are as clear as her reflection on the breast plate of her Temple Guard uniform. For the last few of her 22 years, her mantra has been the Guard maxim, "when in doubt, polish it." In Walls of Westernfort, this devout young woman is offered an opportunity by the Temple hierarchy to be part of a covert mission and she leaps at the chance to offer her life to her goddess, Celaeno. She is to be part of a team of three women who are to infiltrate a group of evil heretics, journey to their stronghold known as Westernfort, and assassinate their leaders.

Natasha's commanders doubt any of the women will survive their mission. Posing as a family interested in joining the heretics, the intelligence agents' journey will challenge the beliefs that Natasha has sworn herself to defend, force her to face her own internal crisis, and define the nature of loyalty and faith. Along the way, she also struggles with her definition of family, and finally, love.

Walls of Westernfort is a recent release from Jane Fletcher and part of her growing Celaeno fantasy series. Celaeno is an all-female society in a pre-industrial, pre-Enlightenment setting ruled by a strict theocracy. The idea of a female-centric, goddess-worshipping world is often symbolic of a utopian culture in lesbian-feminist founded speculative fantasy and science fiction. And a new reader to the Celaeno series might be tempted to adopt this view initially, especially as she travels with the naive and earnest Natasha on her coming-of-age quest.

However, it soon becomes apparent that not all is as it may appear in Natasha's world. The Temple authorities who oversee the worship of Celaeno, with its complex undercurrents of science cloaked in religion, will tolerate no deviance from its established policies and will stop at nothing to ensure compliance with temple law. Thus issues involving the nature of religion, particularly that of a fundamentalist view, and the dangers it can impose in politics is a primary theme of Fletcher's Celaeno world.

As a result, Walls of Westernfort, is not only a highly engaging and fast-paced adventure novel, it provides the reader with an interesting framework for examining the same questions of loyalty, faith, family and love that Natasha must face.

Refreshing in its original twists on old themes, the Walls of Westernfort is well conceived and Fletcher's characters are multifaceted and interesting. Through Natasha's eyes the reader is treated to layered discoveries of the complexities of these women. Indeed, it is through familiarity that the "evil heretics" are revealed to be intelligent, equally determined women struggling to survive within their own conscience. This humanization of the evil enemy creates increasingly difficult internal conflicts for Natasha, forcing her to think for herself rather than accept established doctrine.

It is unnecessary to have read any other Celaeno novels to follow the action and the unfolding culture. While some of the characters in Walls will be familiar to readers of other Celaeno titles, the series is not designed to be strictly chronological. Rather, it appears to be theme-based on the institutions of that world, with stories focusing on the ruling Sisters of the Temple, the Temple Guard, the Rangers, the Militia, the psychically skilled healers known as Imprinters and, perhaps most importantly, the heretics.

In Walls of Westernfort, we see the Temple Guard, inside and out. We learn of their strict code of discipline and life, including abstinence from alcohol and sex, and with Natasha we learn of the harsh, cruel methods the Guard employs to deal with heretics in the name of Celaeno. Natasha finds herself struggling with age-old conflicts faced by military personnel. Is it lawful to complete a mission that is morally wrong? Is it insubordination to refuse? Who gets to decide?

Related to Natasha's self-questioning is her growing attraction to Dani, one of the heretics assigned to guide the "family" to Westernfort. A potter by trade, Dani's short life is marked by scars from a great deal of loss and pain, courtesy of the Guards. And as the attraction and affection between the two women grows, it will become apparent that before Dani can allow herself the hope of loving Natasha, she will have to deal with those scars.

In Walls, Fletcher brings this chapter of Natasha's life to a satisfying conclusion. However, it is clear that many stories of Celaeno remain to be explored. This reviewer will be looking for other titles set in Celaeno and hopes that Fletcher continues with her storytelling.