After a deadly virus sweeps over the world, males make up only one-fifth of the population and human civilization is in danger of dying out. As a result, the few surviving men are guarded by fierce women warriors like Dian, the chief protector of the Valley. The peace and security she defends are threatened when a group of strangers arrives with an unexpected gift. But will this gift lead to a future filled with hope or despair? Dian will determine the path her people will take, in a journey that costs her more than she could possibly imagine.
Inspired by the myth of the warrior queen Califia, this speculative work can easily be seen as the anti-Handmaid's Tale, although it is as feminist and potent as any Margaret Atwood novel. Powerful themes are at work, exploring the meaning of authority in the hands of women. We often hear "if women ruled the world," but Richards makes a compelling case for what such a world would be like. It's not always a pretty picture—it's clear one of the lessons here is that women can be as vicious and warlike as necessary.
Despite the social agenda at work, this is, at heart, a stirring adventure peopled by rich characters. Lyrical writing brings a post-apocalyptic world to vivid life, and the plotting is faultless. Leigh Richards is a pseudonym for mystery author Laurie R. King, who proves herself as facile with futuristic feminist science fiction as she is with historical mysteries and psychological thrillers. (Aug., 496 pp., $6.99)