Review: Queen Wallis an inventive, suspenseful sequel to the dystopian alternate history of Carey’s Widowland

By Michael Grossberg

Sequels can be tricky and often disappointing, falling short of the originals in potentially all sorts of ways.

So it’s nice to report that C.J. Carey’s Queen Wallis (published by Sourcebooks in the U.S. and Quercus in the U.K.) is a worthy sequel that in several ways improves on Widowlandher 2023 Prometheus Best Novel finalist.

Overall, this feminist dystopian novel is one of the most enjoyable works of alternate history I’ve read in years.

With clever details made plausible by the British author’s historical research and civil-libertarian insights, Carey deepens and complicates her scenario about oppressed castes of women in a male-dominated United Kingdom protectorate under Nazi control a decade after World War II.

Suspenseful and well-paced, Widowland and Queen Wallis explore many of the same themes about government propaganda, history suppression and control of culture as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a Prometheus Hall of Fame winner.

But Queen Wallis – one of 17 Best Novel nominees this year – also ventures several steps beyond Widowland to further develop Carey’s anti-authoritarian and libertarian themes – especially the power of literature and art to liberate our imaginations and thus make it possible to imagine being free.

Carey continues to mine the same veins of themes explored in Orwell’s classic and in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, while its feminist take on dystopia is as rich as The Core of the Sun, Johanna Sinisalo’s 2017 Prometheus Best Novel winner.

THE LIBERATING POWER OF POETRY

The rich and fruitful new focus of the sequel is on the unruly power and deeper emotional appeal of poetry and lyrics – and how that can inspire people to think for themselves, get in touch with their deepest values and feelings and thereby find the courage to challenge authoritarian regimes.

Carey finds new facets to reveal about life within such a dictatorship, especially about how women respond in different ways to the expanding caste system imposed by the Nazi’s eugenics-inspired ideology to reduce women mostly to pregnancy-defined chattels. At its worst, the evolving system disappears older women, and women who can’t or won’t get pregnant, to the poverty-stricken and food-starved neighborhoods called “widowlands.”

Set two years after the violent regime-changing act that brought Widowland to its exciting cliffhanger conclusion, Queen Wallis explores a quite different political landscape.

Threatened by the blow to its legitimacy that replaced Edward with his wife Wallis as the symbolic but powerless royal head of the United Kingdom, the Nazi regime considers any talk about that act to be subversive. Only vague and sporadic public references to the Event are permitted.

Carey weaves in plausible plot twists, deeper characterization and new characters – most intriguingly, Queen Wallis, increasingly isolated after Edward’s assassination. The intriguing new settings include the decrepit British palaces where Wallis lives amid fading glamour, impoverished compared to her former wealth and privilege and now under constant surveillance by the Nazis.

ROSE’S DILEMMA

As in Widowland, the protagonist is Rose Ransom, an intelligent and attractive English woman working in a faceless bureaucracy to rewrite literature to expunge any proto-feminist themes of independence that might undermine the caste system and threaten the new order of conformity, obedience and repression.

Initially, Rose’s work in the Ministry of Culture had focused exclusively on the novels of women such as Jane Austen, Emily Bronte and Louisa May Alcott. But now, in the sequel, Rose faces the more difficult assignment of rewriting poetry by both women and men to weave in propaganda and edit out any themes of self-reliance or empowerment.

The Alliance Guidelines for Literature Correction mandate that “themes concerning the inner lives of women are not admissable.”

Rose, who loves literature and poetry in its original form and wants to see it preserved, continues to have private thoughts and feelings that she must hide from the pervasive surveillance of her male-dominated world.

Rose’s dilemma ultimately is the challenge any woman or man faces if they are so unfortunate to live in a society or country dominated by an authoritarian government.

“It seemed to lay bare every evasion, every compromise, every accommodation that she had made…. For two years, she had told herself she had no option but to bide her time, surviving from day to day, impersonating a diligent government servant and doing as little as possible to censor the insurgent voices of English literature.

“Yet how could she explain, to these women who had lost everything, why she had chosen to keep her own gilded status? That every day the question rang louder in her head, Why am I here?”

THE CASTES AND THEIR COSTS

Even after her promotion, Rose remains highly conflicted about her privileged but precarious role within the UK bureaucracy and upper circles of society.

Above all, she remains wary of exposure – amid the surprising development that her previous critical involvement with the Event has inexplicably remained undiscovered.

Only hesitantly, and privately, does she confide her doubts about the increasingly stratified caste system – each level given its own woman’s name – to other women.

“Rose thought: ‘Who wanted to know what it meant to be a woman? The idea is that nobody should feel that women are the same. That all women might share some kind of universal experience.”

“Divide and rule,” nodded Isobel.
“Separating women was their first instinct. The moment the protector got his feet under the desk, he dreamed up the caste system. If you can persuade a Magda that a Gretl is her enemy, or that a Leni should never speak to a Frieda or convince a Renate that a Geli has nothing in common with a Gertrud, then you’ve succeeded. That’s why it’s crucial for them to separate us from each other.”

THE PLEASURES OF LIBERTY

One welcome focus of this beautifully written sequel is on the benefits of liberty and its continuing pleasures – glimpsed in the underground clubs as people gather secretively to drink, smoke, talk and hear poetry – now a revolutionary act that make them virtual enemies of the state.

As one woman confides in Rose:

“Well, I tell you what I miss. Apart from the cigarettes and the food and the men and the freedom to do whatever the hell I like with my own life, it’s my history. They can take everything away from us, but I’m damned if they’ll take our history. That’s why I’m writing it. I’m calling it A Widow’s Story.”

One poetic scene, so concisely written that it’s limited to less than one page, offers a powerful reminder of the importance of religious freedom and the historic role of religion in challenging the State.

When Rose, an agnostic, escapes surveillance by hiding in a church, she’s surprised by the feelings and memories the church setting arouses in her:

“Rose had a sudden, almost irresistible urge to kneel. To pray, although prayer was outlawed, and any reasonable person could see it was nonsensical. If citizens had petitions to make, they were far better directed to the proper authorities…. All the same, the rush of longing surprised her. As though even if you didn’t believe in it, prayer might be a powerful act. A submission to something greater than the Protectorate.”

THE MIXED ROLE OF RELIGION

Yet, Carey wisely balances such insights with others drawn from history in Queen Wallis, originally published in England under the title Queen High.

Soon after Rose enters the church, a female stranger appears to remind her that religion, throughout history, has been a double-edged sword of both liberation and oppression.

“They distrusted stories,” the other woman says.
“The Protestants, in the Reformation. Puritans. This place, St. Helen’s, dates from the twelfth century. The wall would have been covered with pictures, telling bible tales for people who couldn’t read. But in the Reformation every wall was whitewashed. The Protestants distrusted stories because people might learn something, and the trouble with stories is, you can’t absolutely guarantee what people will learn,” the woman tells Rose.

Following so quickly on the heels of Rose’s religious epiphany, this passage not only reveals the dark side of religion in history but connects this telling church scene to Carey’s larger themes about the power of storytelling, of literature, of art and culture – and how the free flow and evolution of culture makes it that much harder for tyranny to find a foothold and preserve authoritarian rule forever.

NO ALLIANCE BUT THE ALLIANCE

Like Orwell, Carey forges ominous catchphrases reflecting the tightening grip of the dictatorship over its citizenry.

The slogans – such as “No Alliance but the Alliance” – appear everywhere, on billboards and signs, in a comprehensive State effort to disrupt and deny individual thinking or individuality.

Here the novel evokes the all-too-real extremist dictatorships of the Soviet Union under communism and in Germany under national socialism.

Carey eloquently drives home the brutal reality of life under authoritarian rule, as people are pressured to deny their own individuality, their own history, their own families, their own interests, their own loves and friendships.

“They like to shake up the community so that people don’t make friends. No Alliance but the Alliance and all that. It astonishes me, really, given the general neglect of our health and habitation, that they would care about the nature of our friendships, but the Alliance is like that. No detail too small,” Rose said.

The paranoid atmosphere of such all-enveloping totalitarian systems is well-dramatized, too.

“The thing about Widowland,” said Isobel, soberly, “is that you never think it’ll be you. You might look at old dears and feel sorry for them, but you never imagine… I mean, you always assume you’ll skip into the sunset, don’t you?”

Note: Queen Wallis is one of 17 2023 novels nominated for the next Prometheus Award for Best Novel. The slate of finalists will be announced by mid-April, so stay posted to the Prometheus Blog.

* Check out ongoing reviews of other Best Novel nominees, the full list of this year’s 17 Best Novel nominees, and the Prometheus Blog’s recent five-part series offering a guide to each nominee with capsule descriptions. Here are the links to Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four and Part Five of the guide to the nominees for the next Prometheus Award for Best Novel.

* Libertarian Futurist Society members, Prometheus-winning and finalist authors and other libertarian sf/fantasy fans are welcome to submit reviews of relevant literature to the Prometheus Awards. Contact Michael Grossberg, one of the Prometheus Blog editors, at bestnovel@lfs.org

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE LFS:

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* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt),Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards and support a cultural and literary strategy to appreciate and honor freedom-loving fiction, join  the Libertarian Futurist Society, a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital in envisioning a freer and better future – and in some ways can be even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, peace, prosperity, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights, individuality and human dignity.

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Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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