Wen Spencer does some interesting things with the “female dominated society” trope that appears in science fiction and fantasy from time to time in this book. From my reading of The Shore of Women, Glory Season, The Gate to Women’s Country etcetera, whenever this story appears, it is usually clear that the writer has an axe to grind about gender politics. Spencer is mainly attacking the “females are not innovative” meme and the “females are naturally more peaceful and nonaggressive” memes that occasionally appear in these works. A Brother’s Price seems to be mostly a response to the axe grinding, than to gender politics. It is at its base a historical romance fully of derring-do and plucky heroes, and there is no sense that the society is “superior” to a male dominated society–it is just different from a male-dominated one.
The worldbuilding behind the story is that the male population has been severely reduced due to sexually transmitted diseases that result in the miscarriage of male infants. It is not a recent occurrence however; there are indications that this has been the state of affairs from prehistoric times onward. (Compare and contrast to Ooku: The Inner Chamber by Fumi Yoshinaga, where Edo period Japan has been reduced to a mostly female population due to a disease that targets men.)The entire society, culture and religion in A Brother’s Price is based around keeping men cloistered and separate for their own “protection,” and so that women can have children. In this culture, men are married off at an early age to groups of sisters. The wives pay the sisters for marrying the brother.
Our Hero is a sixteen-year-old boy named Jerin Whistler who is the oldest boy in a well to do farming family with mysterious connections to royalty, thanks to a kidnapped prince in the family tree. Besides taking care of a gaggle of younger sisters and worrying that he might get married off to the local family of extremely low class scumbags. When bandits attack someone who turns out to be a member of the Army on Whistler property, Jerin ends up rescuing the soldier, because he’s the only one present who is big enough to carry a full grown stranger back to the house. (The oldest sisters have gone into town for supplies, and the next oldest are off chatting up the scumbags’ brother instead of staying at home to protect the farm.)
The soldier turns out to be a princess, and she falls in love with Jerin (or at least, she falls into Serious Like). She wants to suggest him as a husband to her sisters, and makes that suggestion when her sister shows up at the Whistler homestead. After some interaction with the Whistler girls, it’s agreed that Jerin can go to the capital for “the season,” (social season for the nobility) and have him presented with the other young upper class men, just in case the princesses’ other sisters can’t be persuaded to marry him. The situation takes a hair-raising turn when Jerin and his sisters stumble onto a conspiracy to overthrow the queens. Jerin discovers the culprits involved with an assassination of the older princesses a few years previous to the story, just in time to get kidnapped by same. So the Whistler girls and the princesses have to find him, stop the conspirators and fight their way to a happy ending.
(It is very difficult writing a review where the romantic lead is a gaggle of princesses. Really, really difficult–add that to plurals like “ruling queens” and the assumption that everyone is one of a party of sisters–aunts–mothers–cousins–and your grammar goes off in interesting directions.)
This was an entertaining adventure-romance, and I really enjoyed the plot and liked the characters. In some ways, it felt a little like a Western in some respects, and a little like a gender-flopped historical romance in others. (I think the major reason it “felt like a Western,” is the personalities of the Whistler girls. They act a little like cowboys or settlers from a Western to me.) The world building is interesting, and the resulting culture and morality resulting from the gender imbalance makes sense within the context of the story. (I tend not to like it when the underlying morality says one thing, but the viewpoint characters share a morality indistinguishable from the reader.)