In 2020, the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (GLLI) Translated Young Adult Book Prize was split between The Beast Player by Japan’s Nahoko Uehashi, translated from Japanese by Cathy Hirano, (Pushkin Press/Henry Holt & Co.) and Maresi Red Mantle by Finland’s Maria Turtschaninoff, translated from Swedish by A. A. Prime (Pushkin Press/Abrams Books).
In both cases, the selected books form part of a wider series. Maresi Red Mantle completing Turtschaninoff’s three-part Red Abbey Chronicles while the sequel to The Beast Player, The Beast Warrior was unleashed onto our shelves at the end of July 2020. With both of these series featuring strong female leading characters in a fantasy setting, over the next two posts, we’ll be taking a closer look at them to see what makes them so special.
The Red Abbey Chronicles
I first came across the Red Abbey Chronicles last year. I stumbled across Naondel while looking for something new to read. At the time I didn’t know it was part of a series and it was only afterwards that I discovered the other books. The most recent book in the trilogy, Maresi Red Mantle, was praised by the 2020 GLLI judging panel for “how beautifully it works as a stand-alone title”. I would agree whole-heartedly with that for any one of these three books.
The three books tell the tale of the Red Abbey and are set in a fictional world comprising different lands and tribes. The tribes live in different landscapes, each group using and living by the resources available to them. In the first book Maresi (2016) we enter the world of the Red Abbey, a well-established place of learning for girls and women, set up by the Founding Mothers. Located on the isolated island of Menos, it is a place reserved for women and no men are allowed. This first-person narrated story is told by the eponymous Maresi. She tells of a matriarchal society where there are different roles to be fulfilled, with daily routines and a yearly cycle of events. And there is magic is the air, too. When Jai arrives at the Abbey bringing with her the threat from the outside male world, the women of the Abbey must come together, calling upon the spirits of their predecessors to overcome and defeat the threats from outside.
One theme that runs through all three books is the use of sexual violence against women. In this first book, one of the women, the Rose, sacrifices herself to be used by the invading men in order to protect the others from the same fate. Here again is another pattern that runs throughout, the idea of female solidarity, friendship and taking action, often violent, to protect others.
The prequel, Naondel (2017) takes us back in time and tells of the Abbey’s Founding Mothers who are mentioned in Maresi. It is a tale of the brutality of the male-dominated world which the women inhabit. The imagery at times is harsh and violent, with the women repeatedly on the receiving end of misogynistic abuse and rape. For me, this book has a darker feel to it compared to the other two. It doesn’t shy away from depicting this violence, but also showing the women picking each other up and nursing each other after their ordeals. Of the three books, this one in particular has left quite an impression. The women come from different backgrounds and span different generations, but they recognise each others’ strengths and set aside their stark differences in favour of a common goal: escape.
Maresi Red Mantle picks up the thread once again of our protagonist Maresi in the form of an epistolary novel, following correspondence between Maresi and her friends back at the Abbey. Compared to Naondel, this story is somewhat gentler, although the theme of sexual violence continues with one villager being kidnapped and raped. Maresi has decided her calling is to return home with the knowledge she has gained to set up school. Facing resistance from the local community, Maresi realises that while this is her home, her upbringing at the Abbey has left its mark on her and she is caught between the two places, not fully belonging to either. To gain acceptance within her community, she must overcome barriers and, when their whole region is under threat, she must gather all her knowledge and strength, invoking the spirits of the region’s ancestors to save them.
The magic in the novels isn’t one of wizards and wands but of the ability to summon the spirits of the their forebears to protect themselves. One image from the third book has stayed with me and catches me sometimes when I’m out and about: Maresi out with her walking stick, beating the ground as she walks, or rather stomps around her village, unknowingly granting her protection to the land.
These books are about female strength and solidarity. For a more in-depth analysis on the role of feminism and gender identity within these novels, I would would highly recommend Lee Mandelo’s reviews of Maresi (on Tor.com) and Naondel (on the WKL blog).
Join us tomorrow as we continue our look at the GLLI Translated Young Adult Book Prize with Nahoko Uehashi’s The Beast Player and The Beast Warrior.