Gender Constructs & Toxic Masculinity Under Examination: The Fortress by S.A. Jones

If a man gave up his power and status quo, can he change for the better?

This is the question asked and examined in The Fortress by S.A. Jones, a dark sci-fi book that tackles the themes of consent, toxic masculinity, fatherhood and violence against women in an imagined women-led society.
Jonathan Bridges is a highly successful executive for a software company, with a life of status, wealth, and privilege. With that comes a corporate culture that’s highly toxic and misogynistic, where interns and female coworkers are referred to as “poodles” and treated as playthings. But when his wife, Adalia, confronts Jonathan about the rampant sexual violence in his firm and his behavior, his life falls apart before his eyes.

In an effort to save his marriage, Jonathan agrees to Adalia’s suggestion to spend a year at the Fortress as a supplicant to the Vaik, the Indigenous women who live inside the walls of the Fortress. Among the set of rules he must follow, Jonathan cannot ask questions, he cannot raise a hand against anyone within the Fortress, and he must follow all directives and commands by the Vaik, including demands for sex. Within the confines of the Fortress, Jonathan falls into a rhythm working besides Daidd, another supplicant, and other men, and befriending Vaik such as Ulait and Mandalay. His year in the Fortress is not without obstacle, however, as Jonathan must learn to relinquish control and trust in the process he has signed up for.

There is a lot to unpack in The Fortress. For starters, S. A. Jones conjures up two societies in this book: one that mirrors our own, and one which the binary gender roles have reversed – women-led, with men having to submit to the laws that are in place. The Fortress, aptly named, is a lush, expansive territory that is self-sustaining and well-protected, and essentially a safe haven for women. The contrast between outside the Fortress and inside the Fortress is so stark, it’s almost unnerving, and it seems too good to be true.

The Vaik welcome men into their territory as either supplicants, national servicemen or isvestyii, criminals from outside who are essentially serving a life or death sentence within the Fortress. Men within the confines of Vaik territory are put to work as laborers, sometimes used as breeding stock or for sexual pleasure. While there is a slight BDSM-tinge to the idea of the men being used for Vaik pleasure, they are in essence reduced to tools, or chess pieces, their usefulness determined by the Vaik in charge of them. This insignificance, Jonathan’s wife tells him, is something he might be able to learn at his year in the Fortress.

A womxn-led or matriarchal society is an idealized concept that is almost always associated with the Amazonians of Themyscira. And while the Vaik have had experiences with war as per their history, there is no violence within The Fortress, unless it is tied with justice. One of the only instances of violence within the Fortress happens when Jonathan is called to judge an isvestyii at The Great Hall, after almost striking the man earlier in the week. The physical assault on the isvestyii during his judgement is swift, harsh, and uncomfortable, causing Jonathan to second guess himself. That feeling of uncomfortableness and uncertainty carries throughout the book whenever the topic of consent is approached, too.

Before Jonathan signs a contract to serve the Vaik as a supplicant, he is essentially sworn in, stating “I consent,” after each term or rule is given to him. Oddly enough within the Fortress, the clear-cut definition of consent isn’t all that clear, as Jonathan finds himself in situations that he does not want to participate in. His consent, then, is an illusion of choice, bound up in terms and conditions, a point driven home in the sexual encounters Jonathan has, as well as in the confrontation with his wife. Jones’s language in these scenes are extremely on-the-nose, full of the rage, betrayal, understanding, and pain that many victims and survivors of sexual assault have experienced, and conveys those feelings without turning it into a corny feminist diatribe. “How do you say no to a whole culture? A whole history?” Adalia asks.

Changed behavior is of course the endgame for Jonathan, and his transformation does happen. Yet it seems to also be tied up in conditions as well, with the initial reason for signing up to be a supplicant is to save his marriage. While Jonathan learns to practice “Aeraevest,” or watchfulness of the self in Vaik, he is also developing a paternal, good father instinct. Jonathan’s goal is to be a good man for his soon-to-be-born baby – but why not just be a good man?

One of the things Jones does with The Fortress is shift the narrative between three different timeless: Jonathan in the Fortress, Jonathan pre-Fortress, and childhood Jonathan. The narrative isn’t chronological but jumps around between the three. The common thread between these three timelines is the sense of neglect: the neglect Jonathan felt as a child from his parents, the neglect Jonathan practices towards the considerations of others, and the neglect of himself within the Fortress as he shapes himself anew. Jones uses this format as a commentary on how we as a society raise men, and if changing the methods in which we teach men to exist might have profound changes as to how women can exist in society too.

The Fortress is s a visceral, uncomfortable read that scrutinizes, among other things, society’s approach in its treatment of women and how to resolves the gender and power issues we face today.

The Fortress is available from Erewhon Books.

Gabriella Tutino is a NYC-based freelance court reporter, writer and book reviewer. Her work appears on Tor.com, Comics MNT, the US Review of Books, and Highbrow Magazine. Her favorite topics are mythology, anime, and fashion. You can find her travel blog here and follow her on Twitter @gabriellatutino.

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