J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Writers of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). The sequel, The Seat of Magic came out in 2014, and the final book in the series, The Shores of Spain will come out July 2015. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.
I’m neither a historian nor an anthropologist—that’s what got me in trouble. In the first book of my Golden City series, I proposed a sereia (siren) culture that had more women than men. The male, due to his relative rarity, was the protected and controlled member of society, rather than the female. (How often do you see a painting of a male siren or mermaid? Or hear about one depicted in print? It’s not very common, so my logic was that the males must be hidden away.)
Yes, it’s easy enough to say matriarchy when you’re mentioning it in passing.
And in the first two novels in my Golden City series, the sereia lands were only mentioned in passing. The politicians, the thinkers, the scholars…on the islands of the sereia, those were all supposed to be females. There are only a handful of male sereia depicted in these books, and the occasional male who’d worked his way to Portugal was an exceptional one. Back on the islands, males were usually not even educated. All of that is easy to say.
But in the third book of the series, the reader travels to the sereia homeland, and there I couldn’t escape the fact that all the people in power were, well, female. I had to make an effort to get that right, so I started looking into the definition of a matriarchy.
What would an actual matriarchy look like? There doesn’t seem to be a consensus online, and I couldn’t find a book on Amazon about writing matriarchies. (The Idiot’s Guide to Matriarchies would have been very helpful!)
The -archy part of the word has to do with politics, so it was simple enough to have the political offices held by females. In the books, the islands (which had once had a queen) are now run by a senate. Female representatives of the powerful families make up that senate, although most of the power is held by only five families, making it, in effect, an oligarchy. That’s doable. But there’s more to a society than politics. Does inheritance of property pass through the female line (matrilineal)? Does a married couple move in with the family of the woman (matrilocal) or the man? I had to consider those matters, too. Who takes care of the children? Who cooks? Who does the housework and who works in the fields?
And what about that numerical gender disparity that I proposed–twice as many females as males? I’d written that in sereia society there’s a belief that a female is destined before birth to be tied to one male. One who couldn’t find (or afford) a mate was thus destined by the gods to serve her people instead, to be alone all her life. But would that actually work? One thing seems pretty universal…people often ignore what their gods dictate when it goes against what they want.
My editor actually asked me about this. What sort of arrangements of a….um…sexual nature did the women without mates have? The way I see it, those arrangements would probably run the gamut. If a young male was brought into his mate’s home, might he be expected to entertain his mate’s unmated sisters? That seems possible. Would there be male prostitution? Almost certainly. I would expect that a handsome male might make himself a good living that way if he chose not to take a mate. Or a male who’d lost him mate, a widower, could do that as well. Would there be same-sex arrangements? Yes, of course. None of those ever made it into the text of the books–there just wasn’t any way to put it in that had anything to do with the plot–but we did discuss them with the idea that we needed to know that about the society.
And I came up against another thing that caused me to stumble—What about the religion?
I’d established in the first book that the sereia were mostly pagan. I’d decided that these were the same sirens mentioned in the epic Portuguese poem, The Lusiads. They’d once served the Roman gods, but after Venus basically turns them over to be ravished by the Portuguese sailors of Vasco da Gama’s ships (this is a complicated issue of its own)—I pictured the sereia turning their backs on Venus. And on Triton and Zeus, who’d allowed Venus to use them that way. After that, the sereia scholars erased the names of their gods. Although most retained a belief in those unnamed gods, a small percentage converted to Christianity. In my mind I’d pictured the Portuguese Church persisting in sending priests to the islands between 1499 and 1902 to convert the sereia. But would the sereia even listen to the priests? In a society where females rule, would Christianity be a particularly good match? I found that answer elusive.
What I ultimately learned in creating a matriarchal society was that to do so properly would require a university degree to get it right (and I only had 9 months to write this novel). I’m sure that I got a lot of things wrong. I was raised in a predominantly patriarchal society, and therefore I have a lot of preconceptions based in that. There are probably a thousand tiny little things that slipped through my guard, some of them as small as linguistic tics that I don’t realize are historically pitched for the male ear than the female ear. But the experience has made me far more sensitive to my own assumptions, and I hope that the next time I write a culture with a matriarchy, I can do a better job. (Because I’m fairly certain there will be a next time.)
Courtesy of the author, SF Signal has paperback copies of the first two books in the Golden City series, The Golden City and The Seat of Magic by J. Kathleen Cheney to give away to 1 lucky SF Signal reader!
Here’s more information about the books and how you can win:
THE GOLDEN CITY
For two years, Oriana Paredes has been a spy among the social elite of the Golden City, reporting back to her people, the sereia, sea folk banned from the city’s shores….
When her employer and only confidante decides to elope, Oriana agrees to accompany her to Paris. But before they can depart, the two women are abducted and left to drown. Trapped beneath the waves, Oriana’s heritage allows her to survive while she is forced to watch her only friend die.
Vowing vengeance, Oriana crosses paths with Duilio Ferreira—a police consultant who has been investigating the disappearance of a string of servants from the city’s wealthiest homes. Duilio also has a secret: He is a seer and his gifts have led him to Oriana.
Bound by their secrets, not trusting each other completely yet having no choice but to work together, Oriana and Duilio must expose a twisted plot of magic so dark that it could cause the very fabric of history to come undone….
THE SEAT OF MAGIC
Magical beings have been banned from the Golden City for decades, though many live there in secret. Now humans and nonhumans alike are in danger as evil stalks the streets, growing more powerful with every kill….
It’s been two weeks since Oriana Paredes was banished from the Golden City. Police consultant Duilio Ferreira, who himself has a talent he must keep secret, can’t escape the feeling that, though she’s supposedly returned home to her people, Oriana is in danger.
Adding to Duilio’s concerns is a string of recent murders in the city. Three victims have already been found, each without a mark upon her body. When a selkie under his brother’s protection goes missing, Duilio fears the killer is also targeting nonhuman prey.
To protect Oriana and uncover the truth, Duilio will have to risk revealing his own identity, put his trust in some unlikely allies, and consult a rare and malevolent text known as The Seat of Magic…
And here’s how you can enter for a chance to win:
- Send an email to contest at sfsignal dot com. (That’s us).
- In the subject line, enter “The Golden City“
- In the body of the email, please provide a mailing address so the prize can be sent as soon as possible. (The winning address is used only to mail the prize. All other address info will be purged once the giveaway ends.)
- Geographic restrictions: This giveaway is open only to residents of the U.S.
- The giveaway will end Wednesday, July 15th (9:00 PM U.S. Central time). One (1) winner will be selected at random, notified, and announced shortly thereafter.