I'm currently behind on reviews, so don't be surprised if the recent reviews are a bit sparse.

The Power

Cover of The Power.

Sigh. What a book. It’s good on the scene level: the writing is solid and with lots of good observations. Doesn’t hold up on the macro level, though: The approach to gender role inversion – give all women magic lightning powers – is a bit silly, but I’ll suspend my disbelief for a premise. But not for every single thing that follows!

So many frustrating things to argue with. Most of all: The rate of societal change – not even in power, just in how people think – is bonkers and just left me arguing with the book, on all levels: People don’t re-learn their entire approach to gender within a few months or years, no matter to upheaval! And likewise, structural power is just assumed to be wiped away via physical power, within a few short years at most, no matter how old or intricate the power structures. The token mention of queer people for a short second, mentioning how “chromosomal irregularities” end up. Similarly, the portrayal of an online-organised male resistance movement of pseudo-redditors was written realistically, but also just made an appearance as a nod before it got rushed off-stage. And, related: The super weird absence of real politics, despite having a politician POV – but we mostly see her vs men, not how politics transform, or even, y’know, actual politics. The whole book is weirdly pulpy that way, which is not what you expect when an author is championed by Margaret Atwood and thanks both her and Peter Watts for advice.

I didn’t really care for any of the characters – Jos stayed too sidelined, her mother’s maneuvering lacked background (but featured the best-written chapters!), Allie got tiring with her prophet business, and Roxy’s Bri’ish English got at least as much screentime as, say, her character. The way Allie builds up a cult (complete with carefully-vetted wondrous healing etc) could be cool and telling, but felt rushed and superficial instead – I kept comparing it with books like Parable of the Sower, which actually shows us the content of a developing religion rather than the surface layer. When Roxy and Allie started being friends, I was interested, but then they go their separate ways, and everything gets rushed along to the conclusion.

I didn’t hate the book though, of course, and there are many bits that I enjoyed. Like I said, Alderman is very good at observing people and writing about their thoughts and habits. I liked how sarcastic Allie’s voice (what a voice-of-god!) is. I kinda liked the framing, though less the framing narrative (“written by a man in a women-dominated future”, ehh, a bit flat) and more the artifacts (“Bitten Fruit”, heh) shown between chapters. And even though the book hits you over the head repeatedly with what it is doing (a kingdom for a writer who assumes basic competence in their readers), the concept was still cool. I think I’d prefer to read Alderman’s thoughts on the topic as non-fiction – in the afterword, she says, fittingly:

We don’t know much about the culture of Mohenjo-Daro – there are some findings that suggest that they may have been fairly egalitarian in some interesting ways. But despite the lack of context, the archaeologists who unearthed them called the soapstone head illustrated ‘Priest King’, while they named the bronze female figure ‘Dancing Girl’. They’re still called by those names. Sometimes I think the whole of this book could be communicated with just this set of facts and illustrations.

I’m afraid I think so, too.

Plot summary

Beware: full spoilers! Also probably incomplete and possibly incomprehensible.

Surrounding narrative: book written by a man in a female-dominated future, being humoured by women even though he’s a male author.

Women, starting with teenage girls, can suddenly direct electricity out of their hands. We follow a couple of people:

  • Roxy is a Bri’ish lower-class girl growing up among criminals. She’s super strong. Her dad is leading an organisation, and she’s learning the ropes, even though he cheated on his wife with her mother. She ends up leading the organisation.
  • Tunde is a young man and chronicles the whole thing as a reporter. Plans to write a book about it, but it gets stolen by a woman (dun dun duun).
  • Margot is an American politician. She gets the power from her daughter, and is mostly focused on her career.
  • Jos / Jocelyn, Margot’s daughter, has problems with the power, as it’s not regular for her. She joins the US military, both to get training and to help her mother.
  • Allie, another US teenager, hears a voice and, after fleeing abuse and assault, positions herself as a prophet, very successfully.

That’s honestly kinda it, story-wise. Everybody comes together in Moldova towards the last 20% of the story, where a women-dominated country is supposed to be built. (Allie to guide it, Jos as soldier, Margot for diplomacy, Tunde for reporting and Roxy to traffic drugs.) The leader, Tatiana, is bonkers, Allie finally puts her down, but not before there is a comically-evil crackdown in laws on men (who basically aren’t allowed to own things or do things without a female guardian), while also waging war against the other Balcan countries that are getting support from Arab countries, presumably because they also don’t like women.

The end is bleak: Roxie gets her electricity organ stolen by one of her brothers and nearly dies, but makes it out and leaves the country (past a range of war crimes) together with Tunde, who wanted to report on the new laws and got in over his head. She had hoped to get it back from her brother, but the other girls killed him (and the organ with him) in revenge. Allie kicks off a world war in the intent to start civilisation over, listening to the voice in her head (and so, in the end, does Margot).


A: Are you trying to tell me there’s literally no right choice here?
V: There’s never been a right choice, honeybun. The whole idea that there are two things and you have to choose is the problem.


Daniel drums his fingers on the desk, and she thinks, as she finds herself thinking quite often, I could kill you for that. It’s become a constant low-level hum in her. A thought she comes back to like a smooth stone in her pocket to rub her thumb across. There it is. Death.