The Warrior's Path

by Catherine M. Wilson

Cover image

Series: Women Were Warriors #1
Publisher: Shield Maiden
Copyright: 2008
ISBN: 0-9815636-1-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 260

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All the women of Tamras's family have served as warriors. Some fought; some, like her mother, served only during peacetime. But in this (quasi-feudal) society, it's a rite of passage and a duty, and when Tamras turns sixteen, she too goes to the house of Lady Merin to serve. But she's small of stature and not obviously physically fit to be a warrior, which means she starts as a companion to one of the warriors (think squire), hopefully to eventually become an apprentice and be taught to be a warrior. The warrior to whom she's assigned is Maara, a newcomer to the house, a taciturn woman who doesn't want a companion and who initially tries to discourage Tamras. The Warrior's Path is largely the story of their slow accomodation and deepening friendship, about the social dynamics of large families and small bands, and about defining a warrior as an attitude of self-control and ethical behavior as much as competence with weapons.

This is, contrary to one's expectations from the title, not about war. There is a small amount of combat, mostly not on camera, but the deployments are mostly defensive garrisoning. It's also a very unusual book, exactly what one might expect to see as a self-published work, except that it's more polished (and better edited) than most self-published work I've seen. This book, the first of a trilogy, is available for free from the Shield Maiden Press web site or for 99 cents from Amazon (at least currently), so you can get a feel for what you're getting into with only the investment of time. I found it by having it highly recommended to me by a friend.

The word that comes most to mind when trying to describe the style is "dreamlike." Not in the sense of a lack of logical coherency, but conveying that gentle, drifting feeling of lying in bed and letting the mind wander. There isn't a lot of tension or suspense, and there is a great deal of kindness and understanding, even though the primary plot is about not fitting in and being suspected and excluded. There is a villain, of a sort, but for the most part everyone in the book is doing the best that they can with the best of motives. It's a book stuffed to the gills with wise women.

It's also a book full of keenly-observed in-group and out-group social dynamics and one of the most touching portrayals of steadfast loyalty that I've read. I think it gives the situation more depth and emotional impact that there aren't a lot of true villains and the suspicion that surrounds Maara is honest and has some justification. The Warrior's Path avoids simple or quick solutions and does a good job portraying persistance and the slow growth of trust.

Maara, once she starts to open up, is both wounded and admirable, and is a fount of cautious, balanced wisdom about self-control and social interactions. This could have easily felt like a shallow collection of aphorisms or a bad cliche, but for me Wilson pulled it off; Maara says some things that made me think and reconsider, and the book in general did a great job putting me into a quiet, contemplative, balanced mood. It's a rare book that can manage that without boring me. It certainly helps that Wilson fills it with stories, legend and myth, that are good stories in their own right and that don't have simple morals.

What this book most certainly is not is action-packed. That's one of the reasons why I'm unsurprised that it couldn't find a traditional publisher. It has very little of the normal emotional arc of a story, and not much of a sense of dramatic risk. I suspect some people will dislike it because everyone is too nice, and I was worried at times that I'd have that problem, but (at least for me) Wilson deftly avoided crossing that line. But there's no avoiding that it's a quiet, even gentle book, despite injuries and death.

It's also a lesbian love story that plays with gender roles in odd ways, which I'm sure is the other reason why it couldn't find a mainstream publisher. Well, sort of a love story; it's a very slow-moving one that shows a building friendship and that has a couple of (partly unrelated) lesbian sex scenes. Here too, I suspect some will be put off by the slow pace, but I thought it worked for showing deeper emotional connections. The sex scenes, sadly, didn't; Wilson's writing tends towards the poetic, and the sex indulges that tendency far beyond the point of effectiveness. Those plus some of the drug-assisted right-of-passage scenes went much too far into mystical hand-waving and magical interconnectedness for my taste. Thankfully, Maara's cautious advice and Tamras's down-to-earth, heartfelt loyalty made up for it.

This is one of those books that I will be cautious to recommend because it's so different than most things published that I'll have a hard time telling whether someone will like it. It's not the book to read if you're in the mood for something action-packed, nor is it a book to reach for if you're not in the mood for mystical interconnectedness. The almost exclusive female focus of the society is left largely unexplained, at least in this book, and is probably going to cause some problems with suspension of disbelief. But I found it gently honest and utterly charming, and at places it was the sort of book that makes me a better person by putting me in a calmer, more balanced mood. That's a wonderful feeling, and a hard one to find.

Followed by A Journey of the Heart.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-04-25

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