Despite not being able to go to this year’s WisCon, I did pick up this year’s Tiptree Award winner (having been mortified by not reading last year’s winner, Half Life, beforehand and making a fool of myself in front of the author).  I had been pleasantly surprised both by Half Life and by Geoff Ryman’s Air two years back, so I figured hey.

So.  Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North (UK title: The Carhullan Army) deserves this year’s Tiptree, by sheer meeting the criteria alone.  There’s no doubt in my mind that Daughters addresses gender issues better and more thoughtfully than any other novel US-side in ’07–it effectively proves that women can and do and will cross the line when pushed.  The horrors of the dystopian England pictured have come on believably, in slow steady inroads, which is much more chilling than a sudden catastrophe.  I don’t shy away from books that are depressing, for that matter, and though this one is dark, there are moments of beauty in it.  I also appreciated the fact that I’ve been to the setting of the Lake District, for a brief time, at about the time Hall was starting to write the book, early 2005. 

My problems here are two-fold:
– Unlike the last two winners, Daughters of the North, without a doubt, is not as original a concept as I would have liked.  It reads, for a good portion, like an updated Handmaid’s Tale with the stylistic form of Children of Men.  Part of the problem with this is that the main character/narrator is such an enigma.  I got no sense of her as a person besides entirely conflicted, and while she desperately tries to convince the reader that she is not manipulatable, that she sees all the options, she is instead a leaf on a greater wind.  It’s realistic, but it’s also sort of dull.
– There is effectively no climactic scene.  Hall skips the hard parts, the bloody parts, and the worst of the trauma, then tacks on an ending.  It would be less frustrating if not for the fact that almost all of the narrative up to this point has been so very descriptive and evocative of the lives of the women of Carhullan.  They build to a goal, and then that goal isn’t written in its fullest, only hinted at, and then we see a brief denouement that hints at what had happened.  It strikes me as a cop-out, to write all the process, then not actually follow through.  Either write up to the climax point and end it, or write through the whole thing.  Both would have broken my heart, but instead what happened just left me shrugging.

So, in essence, Daughters of the North is an excellent case study of the capabilities of average and not-so-average women.  It is beautifully written in terms of prose and fairly compulsively readable.  It just didn’t grip me, and while I realize that’s not the point of the Tiptree, it’s something I expect from the best feminist SF these days.  I’d say the Carhullan women themselves deserve better, but I just can’t bring myself to quite care.