“The War of the First Day” by Thomas Fleet

If women ran a war, what would it be like?

I am always impressed when a writer takes a stand and sticks to it. In the case of “The War of the First Day,” the whole book is about women. The only males are unnamed enemy soldiers of the cannon fodder variety. Interesting that the author is a male. It’s worth a read just to find out how he approaches it.

All the nastiness of this war is created by women. Witches, to be precise. Ultra-powerful witches who can move at breathless speed, fly, fight viciously with knives, and beat and torture each other with great gusto. It is the story of a woman who desires the ultimate in knowledge and is willing to risk the whole world in its pursuit. A villainess who is truly evil, but conveniently loquacious when she is in the process of torturing someone.

Thus it is not a masculine war of cannons and battlefields; it is a feminine war of attrition, with small groups of witches scattered through the wintry forest, sniping at each other, poking and prying at each others’ defenses, spying, murdering captured enemies in gruesome ways. In some senses an expanded version of a mostly-girl Grade 5 class I taught once.

The main character, Lilta, is an apprentice witch who develops nicely over the course of the story. As the war of attrition continues through the frozen land, she snatches what time she can to pore over books of magic/mathematics/logic/cryptology, trying desperately to learn enough to decode the ancient texts and find out what scheme the enemy is trying to get away with. She also grows into her own skin, moving towards the powerful witch she will become.

The social background of the culture is also interesting. Sex is an incidental, tossed off as a pleasant necessity, as are the men who provide it. The true emotions – love, hate, envy ­– are reserved for women.

If there is any flaw in this book, it is in the basic structure. The main character develops her confidence too quickly, so by the time we reach the final conflict and tension is rising, she has solved most of her inner problems, so we are a bit too confident of her ability to fix everything. This misses the opportunity to pile conflict upon conflict to increase the suspense.

But there is plenty of conflict and well-described action, balanced by the discussion of ideas. At the deepest level the conflict is about logic and communication. “If this is true, then that must be.” Or not, depending on which language it is written or spoken in. And all of it is encoded in the great parchment of the world: the pattern of leaves dancing in the wind, the sound of rain on the roof, the swirl of the waves. It’s hard to describe. Ya gotta read the book.

If you are the kind of person who would like to be able to understand the term, “The world is a self-referential text,” then this book is for you. By the end, you will know. For everyone else, you can pretty well ignore the philosophical physics and enjoy a good war story.

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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