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C. J. Carey, who writes novels as Jane Thynne, has penned WIDOWLAND, a dystopian thriller that dares to ask the big “what if” of World War II: What if Germany had not only won the war, but embarked on an alliance with England?

The year is 1953, and 13 years have passed since the historic night that England surrendered to Germany and entered an Anglo-Saxon alliance, drawing on their shared histories of whiteness to form a union. Although many English citizens remember where they were and what they were doing when their homeland surrendered, they have been encouraged by Protector Rosenberg, the Leader's Delegate for Spiritual and Ideological Training, to forget their more recent history and focus only on their ancient pasts, when they were a single race together with the Germans.

As Germany has taken greater control over England, British women have been forced to take part in the Rosenberg Assessment Procedure, a scientifically rigorous method of putting a label on every female over the age of 14. They are classified in a caste system as Gelis, beautiful, elite women who will make good wives; Klaras, especially fertile women who can produce four or more children; Lenis, professional women who work in offices and as actresses; Paulas, who work in caring professions such as nursing and education; Magdas, lowly shop and factory workers; Gretls, who work in kitchens and as domestic staff; and Friedas, widows and spinsters who serve no reproductive purpose.

"Both an Orwellian dystopian novel and a finely crafted thriller set in a surveillance state, WIDOWLAND is a meticulously researched and envisioned work of speculative fiction."

As women age, suffer illnesses and lose their spouses, their ranks in the caste system can change without warning. Just as we’ve seen in our own systemic imbalances, the labels from Geli to Frieda serve as a self-fulfilling prophesy, as each rank comes with its own accessibility and availability to resources, funds, clothing and food. Curiously, the Alliance’s Leader proclaims that “Women are the most important citizens in this land.” Yet every city and neighborhood hides a dilapidated corner known as a Widowland, a place where Friedas are discarded and left to suffer.

Our guide through the world of WIDOWLAND is Rose Ransom, a privileged Geli who works in the Ministry of Culture. Rose is unsurprisingly gorgeous and, after years of living in a surveillance state, has mastered the art of concealing her true feelings by monitoring and molding her expressions. Her beauty and discretion have earned her the attention of the assistant culture minister, Martin Kreuz. Although Martin is married, members of the elite are allowed to carry on extramarital affairs so long as they don't flaunt them, their affairs remaining open secrets that would carry serious punishments for members of the lower class.

When we meet Rose, her relationship with Martin has caught the attention of Minister Hermann Eckberg, who has been tasked with hiring someone to “edit” works of classic fiction to better fit Alliance ideals. The Chamber of Culture takes a hardline approach to any new works that may be considered subversive or degenerate, but they’ve found that it's harder to cleanse popular works like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and JANE EYRE from public consciousness. Knowing about Rose’s discretion and her blackmail-worthy relationship, Minister Eckberg hires her to read subversive works and make them Alliance-friendly, but not before explaining the urgency.

Recently, government buildings and statues have been graffitied with the phrase “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience,” a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft (a name unfamiliar to Rose and most Alliance citizens, as she was branded a degenerate and effectively banished from memory). As Minister Eckberg informs Rose, there is a worry among the authorities that these acts of vandalism speak to a growing resistance…and they feel that the culprits lie in Widowland.

In addition to her work as an “editor,” Rose is tasked with entering the Widowlands to interview old and dying Friedas about their family histories and legacies, purportedly to help the Protector flesh out his history of Anglo-Saxonism, but really in an effort to root out the resistance. Constantly faced with propaganda and lies about the Widowlands, Rose is initially afraid to talk to the Friedas. But more and more, she is finding that her work with subversive, feminist texts like MIDDLEMARCH and Jane Austen's books is having an effect on her mind and perspective. For the first time, she is starting to question the Alliance and its treatment of women. As she is about to find out, the resistance is much, much closer to her heart and home than she ever realized.

Both an Orwellian dystopian novel and a finely crafted thriller set in a surveillance state, WIDOWLAND is a meticulously researched and envisioned work of speculative fiction. C. J. Carey references numerous real-life historical figures and events to ground her work, and the effect is utterly chilling as she asks “what if?” after “what if?” questions and proposes various answers, each more horrifying than the last. At the same time, the novel is a sharp criticism of the control of the written word, a timely connection to the rash of book bans occurring in the United States, and a poignant and thought-provoking conversation starter that will have readers considering their own favorite works and their subversive themes.

Although the book starts out a bit slow, by the time the mystery of the resistance and Rose’s role in it kicks off, readers are so thoroughly immersed in the Alliance’s surveillance state that they’ll be looking over their shoulders as they read. Rose is a protagonist you can root for, and her development as she learns more and more about her history is startling, immediate and absolutely gripping.

Perfect for readers of Christina Dalcher, Jessamine Chan and Alexis Schaitkin, WIDOWLAND announces an electrifying and brilliant new voice in dystopian fiction.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on August 12, 2022

by C. J. Carey