I recently read A BROTHER'S PRICE by Wen Spencer and was fascinated by its world-building. The society in this novel has gender relationships and a marriage structure like nothing in our history that I've heard of. (The world of the novel seems to have some alternate-universe connection to ours, because Hera-worship dominates their religion.) The driving force of the culture springs from a vast numerical imbalance between the sexes; males are much rarer than females. As far as I noticed, the novel doesn't make it clear whether few males are conceived, most male fetuses die by miscarriage or stillbirth, or some of both. Since the technological level appears to correspond to our nineteenth century at most, maybe earlier in some fields, their medical science might not even know the ratio of male to female conceptions. As in Jacqueline's Sime-Gen universe, no explanation is offered for this status quo. It's simply a sad fact of their biology. Unlike the Simes and Gens, the people of Spencer's world don't have even a distant legendary memory of a time when things were different; at one point the hero and heroine laugh at the notion of a one man-one woman marriage.
Spencer explores the ramifications of these gender roles in a strongly plotted story full of emotion and suspense. She made me believe, for the duration of the novel, that a man could fall in love with a family of sisters and they could happily share him. Kinship altruism operates in this arrangement—that is, the organism "wants" to contribute to the well-being of an organism carrying many of the same genes. A group of sisters marries one man (some of the girls might be too young for mating at the time of marriage, but they're still legally his wives). He fathers as many children as possible on as many of them as possible. A family blessed with more than one boy child is unusually fortunate. When the younger generation reaches marriageable age, they either purchase a husband or, if they can't afford "a brother's price," trade brothers with a neighboring family. Women who want children but can't acquire a husband in either of those ways can go to a "crib," where men have sex with women for money (not paid to the men, who have no legal rights—paid to the crib owner).
I love the way Spencer develops the inevitable results of the gender imbalance in matters large and small. Naturally, in this world women perform all the significant economic and political roles, including military service. Men and boys are far too valuable to put them at risk in the wider society. They stay safe at home, caring for their younger siblings, until they're married off. The Whistler clan, to which the young hero belongs, is exceptional in teaching its sons to read, write, and defend themselves. They don't live in a culture of safety and luxury, not even the prosperous households. Families feud with each other. Piracy, banditry, and husband-raiding are not uncommon. Boys are guarded like Victorian maidens. Their sisters dress them to attract female admiration (but they shouldn't dress like sluts). They wear veils in public, and when the hero raises his veil in a city street, he's scolded for tempting women with what they can't have. Women treat males like girl children in our culture pre-women's-liberation, expected to be charming and brainless; women the hero has just met regularly address him as "sweetheart," "honey," etc. Boys are required to maintain their virginity until marriage, since custom places heavy emphasis on both men and women staying "clean," for an STD can spread from one person to a dozen or more within a marriage. (Examination for venereal disease, in addition to a sperm count, is an essential part of determining a boy's eligibility as a prospective husband.) If an illicit sexual encounter occurs, it's the woman's fault, and seduction is censured almost as sternly as rape. After all, a man learns from earliest childhood that he has to obey women. Some women do rape men, with the use of drugs. If male-on-female rape occurs, it's not mentioned in the novel, and we'd expect it to be very rare. Men virtually never have unchaperoned access to females outside their own families, and in a culture of male scarcity, virtually all men can hope to marry. The lesbian activity we'd expect to accompany a shortage of men is mentioned but doesn't play any part in the plot.
The story combines action and political intrigue with gender-flipped romantic problems. A naive boy from a family of prosperous commoners falls in love with a princess. Not only does she have to dig up an ancestral connection that makes him eligible to marry into the royal family, there's the added complication that in this world she has to win the consent of all her sisters old enough to have a say in the choice of husband.
Polygyny in A BROTHER'S PRICE differs from the same marriage structure in our world because of the social dominance of women, which in turn arises from their numerical dominance. In real-world history, with approximately equal numbers of each sex, polygynous societies allow rich and powerful men to accumulate multiple wives, while poorer men have to settle for one bride or none. In that situation, women have little overt power, while men rule society and their own households. In Spencer's world, males are far too few to dominate women, and it's the women, not the men, who have established polygyny out of necessity. In fact, men don't particularly want too large a number of wives (and women aren't particularly eager to share a husband with a huge number of sisters, so a family that grows too large tends to split amicably into two households).
This book fulfills the prime requirement of SF romance, that both the romance and the SF content are necessary to the plot. The story wouldn't work without both of those components.
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt