The First Sisters: Naondel by Maria Turtschaninoff

In Maresi, translated and released last winter by Amulet Books, readers came to know the Red Abbey: a separatist women’s island, full to the brim of magic, sisterhood, and strength. Turtschaninoff returns us to that world with Naondel, a powerful, brutal prequel that reveals the origin of the Abbey and the trials of the First Sisters. As the flap copy says, “told in alternating points of view, Naondel is a vivid, riveting exploration of oppression and exploitation—and the possibility of sanctuary.”

Naondel is at times a harsh novel. The frame of the story is that this book forms a recorded history for the archive of Knowledge House, as referenced in Maresi; the women whose stories are recorded here suffer immense cruelty and degradation in their long captivities. While this is balanced for the reader in the obvious knowledge that the protagonists do survive to found the Red Abbey, given that it’s a prequel, it is nonetheless a harrowing experience.

The founding of a separatist feminist space amongst a set of empires often hostile to women is bound to be a different type of story than one set in an already extant feminist space—and that forms the main difference between Maresi and Naondel. I praised Maresi for its willingness to be unflinching in the face of misogynist violence, depicting and defeating it without turning away from the real suffering it causes. In Naondel, that praise is put to the test in a particular way, because there is no respite until the close of the novel. Each of the women whose stories we’re reading is raped, often repeatedly, often violently, by Iskan over the course of the novel. Their liberties are stripped, their personhood is undermined. His cruelties are physical and emotional, constant, and inescapable. There were moments in reading Naondel that made me nauseous.

But there is, ultimately, a point to that. Turtschaninoff weaves together the lives of these women from utterly different backgrounds, skillsets, classes; she explores the experiences of oppression, subjugation, and control that unite them as a set of sisters—and in doing so makes an argument for cross-cultural, cross-generational, cross-class, cross-race alliance against misogynist violence. It’s also significant to note that, though rape is a horrifying constant in the novel, Turtschaninoff does not linger on detail. She provides little description of the act itself except in general, always from the point of view of the woman writing her own narrative and reclaiming her own experience.

Given debates about the method for writing scenes of rape in fiction—particular in terms of respect, care, and purposefulness—Turtschaninoff’s distinct effort to render her protagonists’ pain real to us without making a spectacle of it, no matter how often it occurs, matters. It’s a testament to their experience rather than a prurient set of details, a representation of what various women’s descriptions of their own violation can look like. In these scenes of violence, the protagonists retain their dignity and their sense of self, or regain them afterwards with the help of other women’s care.

It’s a hard read, make no mistake, but the manner of approach is important.

The political narrative is also significantly different from Maresi, which was concise unto narrow in scope. Naondel is a tale of empire and its magic is primal, centered on land and tradition. The wellspring Anji, Kabira’s responsibility until she reveals it to Iskan as a girl, is a neutral force that might be used for good or ill. The same can be said of the other women’s sources of strength in their various forms (a river, a skull). The climax, when the spring is polluted and her power dispersed among the Sisters, is a moment of ultimate sacrifice but also ultimate balance: what dies lives on, in a new form, evolving to new needs. Birth and death are the great drivers of this world as embodied by the women who live in it, mothers, warriors, seers, priestesses, daughters, sisters all.

Also, though the clarification doesn’t come until the end of the novel, Naondel answers a question that the first book in this cycle raised for me about its definition of womanhood. When Kabira asks the origin of Sulani’s pregnancy—given that both are women on an island of women—Daera informs her that Estegi is “a woman […] in her heart, and that is where it counts.” She notes that physically she “has a little of both” man and woman, according to the cultural definitions our heroines are functioning within.

Good to know that the Red Abbey welcomes girls who are intersex, girls who are transgender, and so forth. It was a previous concern I had and I’m glad it’s laid to rest quite directly. I also appreciated that Orano/Esiko is a girl raised as a boy who still sees herself in adulthood as a sort of man though she has begun to refer to herself as a woman. Her arc complicates questions of gender, hierarchy, and power in a way that reminds me of historical fiction dealing with the various reasons someone assigned female at birth might, in the past, have lived as a man and what they’d have made of their identity.

Naondel is the prequel that Maresi needed: it stares unflinching into the horror that shapes women’s experiences and then follows them through their journey of survival into thriving power. It is, therefore, immensely hopeful—though it is a hope tempered by pain, as trauma cannot be undone once it happens. The themes of oppression and violence that run as the bleak connecting thread over all of the points of view that make up the novel are intersectional, complex, and well-realized. Overall, Naondel provides a difficult but thought-provoking experience for a reader who is prepared for it.

Naondel is available from Amulet Books.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone TellingClarkesworldApex, and Ideomancer.

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