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Book Review: Warrior Rising by J.L. Nicely

Title: Warrior Rising

Author: J.L. Nicely

Publisher: Braintree Press

Publication Date: Aug 31, 2019

Genres: Epic Fantasy

Shelves: Female-fronted, female-authored

My favorite thing about being a book blogger isn’t getting the pretty new ARCs before anybody else, it’s getting introduced to books that might have otherwise gone unnoticed . . . and getting to know the authors and the passions behind those books.

Earlier this year I had the great privilege of meeting J.L. Nicely, who was kind enough to provide me with copies of the first 2 books in her Womara Series. The first, Unconquered Warrior, was quite simply everything I wanted it to be – so much so, in fact, that I was a little hesitant about reading Warrior Rising.

Now, of course, I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to enjoy the next chapter of Seanna’s tale. Like the first book, this is once again an epic fantasy about female empowerment but, more than that, it’s also a moving piece of fiction about female identity and women’s agency. It’s a book that explores what it means to be a woman in a medieval society, a second-class citizen in a world of chauvinism and patriarchy. This whole series is about striving for balance, reaching for equality, and it’s how that’s done that is the charm here.

The women of the Womara clan live differently, love differently, and fight differently than men. Unlike so many fantasy novels that pay lip service to equality, Nicely doesn’t force her characters into an aggressive, bulked-up, masculine mold to compete. She allows her women to be women, celebrating what makes them different, and exploring how their differences can be embraced to place them in balance with men. The Womara meet the brute strength of the barbarians to the North with finesse and intelligence, outwitting them and displaying their own unique physical prowess in gaining the high ground.

Even the telling of the Womara Series, especially Warrior Rising, is about that gender distinction. While we do see women in combat throughout the novel, with one particularly chilling scene involving the execution and decapitation of those northern raiders; and the women are not presented as some peaceful clan of pacifists, instead being permitted the same drive for vengeance and retribution as anyone else; but much of the story is about what happens after or outside of combat. It’s about personal relationships and a sense of community. There’s enough treachery, tension, and action here to satisfy any fantasy reader, but it’s more a story of diplomacy and negotiation than one of physical conflict.

It’s not about saving the world, but about making the world a better place.

As much as I loved the romance between Seanna and James, the family drama of Dian and Arden, and the romance/drama of Thea and Stuart – all of which is intimately tied into that question of balance – it was the historical scenes that I found most fascinating here. We’ve already seen how the Womara clan came to be, and now we see how it’s grown and thrived (I loved how they brought skill and trade to the forest), how it’s faced challenges (both violently and cleverly), and how (most importantly) the misogynistic violence of the genre is transformed.

In that respect, there is one particularly grim chapter about a young woman of the Womara clan who is abducted, raped, and enslaved by raiders, but it’s not portrayed for sheer narrative exploitation to create tension or pity; it’s not about being a victim; and it’s not about needing to be rescued. Instead, the experience is presented as one of enduring, remaining true to one’s self, and waiting to seize the moment and claim her own freedom. There’s a mental and emotional component to the torture that digs deeper than any physical torment, and I swear I’ve never read anything more heroic than that woman simply surviving, outsmarting her captor, defeating him with a small act of violence, and then giving birth, alone in the forest, before making her way home with a child she chooses to love, holding him innocent of his father’s crimes. As the women of her clan declare upon her return, there was no shame.

Warrior Rising was another fantastic read, full of strong characters, complex plots and schemes, and moments of genuine heroism. Women’s struggle for equality is integral to the story, but it’s more about balance in standing alongside men than in having to become like them. This is a volume that advances so many plot threads, throwing a few surprises at the reader in the final chapters that promise to escalate matters in The Blood of Warriors, making that final volume a must-read.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀ 1/2

My sincere thanks to the author for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review.

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