Prayer of the Handmaiden by Merry Shannon is actually the second book in a fantasy series, but since it’s about a completely different pair of women than the first one, just set in the same universe, you can start there like I did and not be the slightest bit confused. As someone who doesn’t like the pressure of having to read a dozen books at a time just to get a full story, and who writes her own series such that each book can be read independently of the others and out of order, I was grateful for that. I also found the world-building really easy to follow and approachable, which is not always a given in an epic high fantasy novel, and I appreciate that, too.
The plot can be summed up as “goddess-worshipping nation defending itself against Bad Guys.” A priestess is called into service to lead the fight in a miraculous way, and she and the woman she loved before she took orders are thrown together again in the process. What I loved the most about this book was the repeated, detailed descriptions of the pleasures of divine communion; I often try to feminize all the “God” words in temple and my favorite part of Shabbat services is Lecha dodi or the welcoming of Shabbat as if She were divine, and so this book plugged right into my extremely “prayer as a positive”, goddess-worshippy theology.
I consider the recitation of reassurance “no dead lesbians, no lesbians sleeping with men, yes happy ending” to not be a spoiler but instead a stamp of approval beyond which many of us won’t venture further, but in a fantasy novel with a couple of violent battle scenes like this one I hope that stamp doesn’t give too much away.
Also, an added note that anyone who read my books and wished Shulamit and Rivka were the f/f couple instead of being platonic friends will probably enjoy a side couple in this book, who I understand were the main couple in the original work in the series (Sword of the Guardian.)
Shannon has also created a very memorable villain in a warrior woman literally visibly pregnant with, well, basically the anti-Christ, but this is not a Christian universe. I’m not going to be able to get that image out of my head all day 🙂
I don’t entirely know if “pagan inspie lit” or “goddess worship inspie” is a genre, but this would be a good candidate for it. Love is a divine gift, and theology that actively contradicts that, insults that divinity. If you believe the same, or you’ve been yearning to find a philosophy that feels that way instead of trying to guilt you for love or harmless physical desires, this book may be like a nice warm bubble bath. (Except for the bloody battle scenes!)
Commendation to the author for the unique twists and revelations at the plot’s climax (love the holiday of “the fifth day of the fifth month” and the way it started!)