Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific achievement. I know, having written one ~ and only one. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.
That said, here is my honest opinion of The Priest by Monica La Porta, a work of speculative fiction which I finished reading this morning.
Characters: The story revolves around Mauricio, a young male slave in a woman-dominated society; and Rose, daughter of that society’s president. Highly intelligent, but terribly lonely, Mauricio chafes in his slave status, and glories in the one freedom he has — freedom of thought. He’s a “semental,” a sperm-donor, and it’s in this capacity that he meets Rose.
Mauricio is well-characterized through his thoughts and actions. Here, half-starved for both food and sleep, Mauricio is woken up in the middle of the night:
“Wake up. You’re wanted elsewhere.” The guard’s voice echoed inside his cell.
Today we have brutality with a side of loud banging against the door, he thought, his eyes still closed despite all the noise.
The woman barged in, the stomping of her reinforced boots waking him completely.
Nothing says ‘good morning’ like the fear of being beaten.
Monica does a good job of showing a thoughtful and gentle Mauricio, despite his immersion in a brutal, dehumanizing environment that could easily drive him to violence and senselessness, if not insanity.
She cleverly works in some physical description of Mauricio, as two guards discuss the physical characteristics Rose wants in her baby; the same physical characteristics Mauricio possesses:
“Fortunately, we have a semental that fits the bill to perfection. Even the facial features are similar to what she asked. Straight nose, big almond-shaped eyes…”
Rose also gets some good description, as seen through the protagonist’s eyes as she sleeps:
She was small with long chestnut hair that trailed down the bed to the floor. Her face was minute with a little nose that turned slightly up at the end. Mauricio wondered what color her eyes were. Her skin was golden-brown, while his was olive, and she was wearing the same green gown he was wearing.
Despite her privileged position, Rose feels used and manipulated by those around her. In her own act of rebellion, she runs away to the Temple, to conceive a child out of wedlock, where she encounters and falls in love with Mauricio, who, to put it mildly, is different from anyone she has ever known.
Plot: Slave Mauricio and president’s daughter Rose meet through Mauricio’s small act of rebellion of not staying where he’s supposed to, and soon find they are kindred spirits. The relationship puts Mauricio’s life in jeopardy, and Rose, with the help of a few sympathizers, tries to save him.
Complications include the fact that Rose is pregnant with Mauricio’s child, and Mauricio has learned a secret that could be potentially devastating to the state if it gets out.
Setting: The action takes place in the fictional city-state-nation (not sure which) of Ginecea. Ginecea is a three-tiered matriarchy, ruled by the “pure breed” women. “Fathered women” are second-class citizens, but are still high above men, slaves who are considered soulless beasts.
We don’t get to see much of Ginecea. Action is limited to interiors of the Temple, and there to slave cells and medical spaces. There’s also an agricultural facility, with a glimpse of lush, beautiful fields. Later in the book, action moves to “The City of Men,” but with little more description than we got for Ginecea.
What I thought could’ve been done better: I would’ve like a little more description of the guards. There are enough of them in the story that, together, they have a pretty solid presence. The narrative would have had more clarity, I thought, if I could see what kind of uniforms the guards wore — camouflage like our soldiers? Maybe tight black uniforms that show curves (I hope)? Loose-fitting coveralls? What’s the rank insignia like? These kinds of details make the narrative environment easier for readers to imagine.
Ginecea ~ I love that name. Sounds Grecian, or at least Mediterranean. But I was disappointed not to see any of it. I understand that we can only see through the protagonist’s point of view, and Mauricio has seen little of Genicea. But it’s the author’s job to take readers to places they’ve never been, and I think Monica missed an opportunity to do just that.
And I wouldn’t have minded a little backstory on how Ginecea and its enslaved male population came about.
I think the story could benefit from a bit of restructuring. The story has two main sections. The first section tells the story of Mauricio’s early life and his relationship with Rose. The second section tells of Mauricio’ later life and the consequences of what happened in the first.
This creates a disconcerting separation — almost like starting a new story. There’s an easy fix however; one used by many great stories. Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak comes to mind.
Start the story in Mauricio’s later life — after he’s become “the priest” of the title. A good starting point would be the riot in the City of Men, which Monica alludes to, but doesn’t show. She tells how stories of the cruelty of the women of Ginecea toward their male slaves spark a backlash of rioting in the City of Men against the city’s innocent female minority.
Why not start out showing this riot? When the riot is over, and distraught Mauricio sits amidst the shambles of his beloved city of equality that he helped found, his young students ask him what it all means. And then he unfolds his story of love against the odds; a story that offers hope for rebuilding the shattered city and its shattered ideals better and stronger than ever.
In this way, two disparate story ideas are combined into an organic whole, and the story comes full-circle.
Of course, it’s easy to offer the suggestion. And none of these issues came anywhere close to derailing the story for me.
What I thought was good: Monica’s portrait of a male slave in the “system” of a hard-core matriarchy from the slave’s point of view is solid gold. She’s stripped away the sexual fantasy and showed it with the ring of gritty reality. This alone is easily worth the price of the book, and it starts right from the beginning of the book.
“Get out.” The guard opened the cell door and pointed her gun at him. Mauricio noticed that she had a whip ready in her other hand.
“Right away,” he murmured under his breath. His legs weren’t steady enough and the hesitation in his movements earned Mauricio a taste of the guard’s spitefulness. He managed to suppress a scream when the whip lashed his chest, but a tear escaped his eye.
I hate you with all my heart.
He turned his head to hide his pain from the guard. The three men remaining in the cell were silently fighting for the empty bed.
To Mauricio the sight was more painful than the whiplash. He was aware of his condition as a slave. Sometimes he wondered if the other men were.
The devilish collars all the men wear — which tickle when tugged on, but deliver painful scarring stings when the men step out of their assigned areas — helped me understand how women could keep larger stronger men in such servitude.
I also liked the book’s heart ~ the relationship between the rebellious president’s daughter and the abused slave. Monica creates real chemistry between the two.
“Sometimes I wish I had the power to change the things I don’t like,” Rosie continued.
“Like what? You’re a woman; you can do anything you want! What would you like to change so much?” Mauricio asked, interested.
“The fact that you’re a slave,” Rosie simply answered.
Once again, Mauricio was speechless.
“I don’t think it’s right.”
“I agree,” Mauricio managed to say. Something deep inside him broke at her words.
I loved that line ~ “You’re a woman! You can do anything you want.”
I found myself truly hoping there could be a happy ending for these two, which means, ultimate compliment, Monica made me me care for her two fictional characters. I had to admit, though, within the parameters Monica set up, a happy ending seemed unlikely.
Obviously, I won’t say whether or not things work out for Mauricio and Rose, but I will say the ending Monica crafted rings true and satisfies.
Overall: So who writes a perfect book? Monica’s vivid tale of love in a time of oppression is a compelling story for both its fascinating reversal of dominance between men and women and its two wonderfully drawn main characters. It’s a timeless reminder of how important and how dangerous it can be to follow our hearts, and how, in the end, there really is no other choice.
Good job Monica!