What would happen if women all over the world developed the power to electrocute men to death? Well, the simple answer is chaos. The literary answer is a thrill. Naomi Alderman’s The Power (Penguin, 2016) is horrifying and, pardon the pun, electrifying. There is so much energy, again sorry, pulsing through each chapter as it builds towards The Cataclysm – the event where this power spreads so much that women become the dominant sex – and the fallout from it. We look through the eyes of a fleet of engaging characters around the world. This small twist of nature, that women have electric zapping abilities, turns the tables of power in a devastating way. The women who use this power maliciously use it to restrict men by means of torture, rape and even killing them. The heavy themes of this novel are explored to extremes with a nuance. This idea of one sex systematically oppressing another, at times threatening physical or sexual violence, is the novel’s second most terror. Its first, however, is the reality that the real world can be just as bad.
In comes The Boy I Am (Little Tiger Press, 2021). K. L. Kettle’s writing, as well as the world she creates, is spellbinding. Kettle examines a similar idea as The Power by upturning men/women power dynamics, but enters her world through the men. Once a year, lucky young men in the House of Boys are auctioned to the female elite. If they fail, they face a future working in the mines. Since the death of his best friend at the hands of the all-powerful Chancellor, Jude is hell-bent on escaping this life, and he’ll start by killing the Chancellor. This plot starts out slow, making time for world-building, which Kettle does exquisitely, and builds toward huge action set-pieces and crescendos.
“It’s not like it doesn’t happen to every boy. A grab here. A grope there. Small belittling moments we’re meant to endure…” This quote is among the more unambiguous ways in which Kettle makes her point. The central character relationships and arcs in this novel are heart-warming and hopeful, and the characters generally defy the gender-based strictures of the society in gestures (great and small). With women in charge and safely out of harm from men and their behaviours, shouldn’t this world be preferable? Well, as Alderman does, Kettle offers a world that is not designed to be preferable to ours but to illuminate the obtuse and systemic ways that our own society is flawed. Both novels are effective and poignant, but differ in delivery. Where The Power makes its point with chaotic, shocking grandeur, The Boy I Am makes it gradually and thoroughly.
By Rory McNeill.