Jenna Glass’s The Women’s War opens with a bang: Discarded by her royal husband decades ago for a marriage alliance with another kingdom, the abbess of the Abbey of the Unwanted unleashes a spell that catastrophically changes the magic system that powers seven kingdoms. It also gives women far more abilities than they had before, tearing the suffocating fabric of society.
The first in a trilogy, The Women’s War gives readers of Naomi Alderman’s The Power and Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife an epic fantasy to sink their teeth into. The Amazon editors named The Women’s War one of the best science fiction and fantasy books of March.
We had the great pleasure of speaking with Jenna Glass while she was in Seattle about how The Women’s War came to be, and here’s what she had to say.
Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review: Jenna, when people ask you about The Women’s War, how do you describe it to them?
Jenna Glass: I describe it as a feminist epic fantasy, and I also say it’s about women having control of their own ability to bear children… which could be a metaphor for other things but isn’t necessarily….
Part of the conceit of my world is that because women will no longer bear children if they don’t want to, it becomes much harder to create these forced dynasties and these forced alliances between families and between nations. And it gives [women] a sort of power that they had never had before, somewhat like getting the Pill gave women an awful lot more power than they had before, even though there are still barriers to that use.
You’ve written 20 or more books in other genres. What made you decide to write this story—The Women’s War—in the epic fantasy genre?
I had this idea for a long time. [In 2012, Missouri Congressman Todd Akin] talked about how a woman’s body has a way of not conceiving in a “legitimate rape,” and I thought, “What would it be like to write in a society where that was true?” For a long time, I thought about it, and then I said, “That’s too overtly political; not something that I’m comfortable writing.” And then I went through a period of feeling fairly burned out on writing and I spent about a year not really working on anything new… Then the day after the  election I thought about this idea that had been floating back there forever that was too political and I thought, “You know, I’m going to actually try to develop that and play with it a bit and see what happens.” I wrote it without a contract, without a deadline, without any requirements—and in some ways I approached it as something very selfish: “I’m going to do what I want to do and I’m not going to worry about what anyone else thinks.” And that was the birth of The Women’s War, which I went crazy over and fell in love with, and I discovered my love of writing all over again….
Can you tell me about the magic and the magical elements?
The magic system in The Women’s War is a little bit like a formula with elements. You have these elements that, when you mix them together, make magic. My elements are gendered: Certain elements are only available to women, and some [are available] only to men, and some are for everybody, and that drives the magic in my world. The woman’s magic is considered lesser magic—not as important, not as powerful—but things change over the course of the book.
In your novel, when women can’t support themselves in a respectable way, they’re very vulnerable. And sometimes wives are cast aside and they’re put in a place called the Abbey. In your own words, what’s the role of the Abbey?
The Abbey is called the Abbey of the Unwanted, and it’s where the women of noble birth go when they are unwanted in some way, usually by their husbands or fathers. [The unwanted] are divorced, they’ve been unfaithful, they’ve been accused of being unfaithful, they have been disobedient, or their husband wants to marry a younger, prettier model and wants to get rid of them. So they go to this Abbey, where they are considered ruined women. Many of them are forced into prostitution. But with that ruination comes the freedom to practice woman’s magic, which is also considered dirty and shameful. The Abbeys are the places where woman’s magic flourishes.
Your novel focuses on four different women. There’s Ellin, who becomes queen of her kingdom. There is Alys, the king’s daughter—
And a 42-year-old mother of two!
There’s also Alys’s daughter, and a woman who becomes the new abbess of the Abbey. Was there a character whose scenes you really liked writing?
I liked writing all of them, but Alys was the one I started with—someone who is a little bit older, who has been through some more difficult things in life. That was one of those things where I said, "I’m going to write what I want to write. I’m going to forget about the conventional wisdom that a middle-aged mother of two is not going to be really a great lead character." I just had a lot of fun with her, and with writing her relationship with her teenage daughter, Jinnell, and even with some of Alys’s own misconceptions about what her daughter is like.
I loved how Alys kept underestimating Jinnell.
Yes, and in some ways that’s classic: Women are taught to underestimate ourselves. [Alys] is underestimating her daughter in very much the same way that society underestimates women, and Alys is learning, “Oh, wait a minute. I’m not really seeing her. I’m just seeing this overlay of what I expect.”
You mentioned at the end of the book that normally editors will come in and ask you to trim—but that was not your editor’s reaction to this book. She asked you to expand parts. What were the parts that that you expanded on?
I had never really written epic fantasy before, so I was used to trying to stick to the center and not go too crazy with the subplots. My editor was like, “You know, this is an epic fantasy. It could be a big book. You can actually follow some of those trails and see where they lead.” She wanted me to add some sections in Jinnell’s point of view, which led me to all kinds of revelations. The books I used to write were approximately half the length of these books. If you had told me a couple of years ago that I’d be writing books this long, I would have laughed at you because I tend to be a spare writer.
It didn’t seem like there were extraneous details. It felt all very necessary from my point of view. And I cannot wait for book two, especially since book one has a heck of an ending.
Yeah, I’m sorry in advance to anybody who is unhappy about how it ends, but…
I thought it was a perfect ending.
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