Whether you love or hate Dara Joy’s books, you have to admit that she doesn’t play it safe. For her first hardcover, Ritual of Proof, the author of Rejar and High Energy creates a totally new fantasy world. She also addresses, with a wink, those critics who claim that her female characters aren’t strong enough.
The females on Forus Moon are certainly strong enough. In fact, in this brave new world, the women are the undisputed rulers of society. They are the lawmakers and the protectors of the weaker males, who must remain virgins until they are chosen by a woman, bid upon, and “fastened.” Most men accept their role in this Regency mirror society. As one “come-out” (male debutante) tells our hero,
Face it, Jorlan, we are the lesser sex. That is why our name-givers take care of us. Left alone, we would fall to ruin. We are intellectually inferior. Left unmonitored, our innate male aggression would destroy this world.
Green Tamryn is a wealthy, titled She-Lord who is in no hurry to choose a male “name bearer.” Yet she can’t deny the attractiveness of young Jorlan Reynard, a “veil” who chafes under society’s restrictions and dares to claim that men are the equal of women. But Green’s nemesis, Claudine D’Anbere, also has her eye on Jorlan, and she is ruthless in her determination to claim him. When Green realizes that saving Jorlan from Claudine’s malicious clutches is more important than her own wish to remain free, she embarks upon a startling adventure. Jorlan may be sexually inexperienced, but he has a passionate nature that quickly emerges. But Green and Jorlan’s new-found happiness may be short-lived, as Claudine makes a last desperate bid for Jorlan that could cost Green everything, including her life.
Many scenes in Ritual of Proof are extremely engaging, as Dara Joy uses her unusual society (complete with glossary) to poke gentle fun at both traditional Regency romances and modern feminism. You have to appreciate a world in which pregnancy has been reduced to a 3-month period, thanks to a “natal accelerator.” And where male virginity is prized but women have their own professional “pleasurers.” But would you want to live in a world in which the men are responsible for child rearing?
The novel contains many explicit love scenes - in fact, they constitute nearly half of the book - and while they veer towards overdone purple prose, they are also amusingly original, as woman-of-the-world Green tutors Jorlan, only to find that the student has a few tricks of his own. He even has the audacity to initiate lovemaking, and he has no respect at all for the traditional female-superior position!
While the novel’s plot is cleverly creative, the characters are less successful. Green is a strong woman, no doubt about it, but she’s too perfect - intelligent, kind, honorable, brave - and rather one-dimensional in her flawlessness. Jorlan is more intriguing. Ten years her junior, he seems like a young schoolboy at first. But his refusal to accept the status quo, along with a hidden talent or two, gradually make him a stronger hero. Okay, confession time. As a confirmed feminist who eschews overbearing alpha heroes, I was surprised to find that I had trouble warming up to a hero who was in the submissive stance - at least at first. Green and Jorlan do make an appealing couple, though, and most of the book’s conflict is external, allowing them to gradually get to know and love each other without any misunderstandings.
Ritual of Proof stumbles near its conclusion, when Dara Joy throws in unnecessary and confusing New Age mysticism. The story stands on its own merits and isn’t strengthened by mumbo jumbo statements such as, “I connect directly to the source so I become its nature.”
The ending of the novel leaves open the door for a possible sequel involving other residents of this unusual society. Will readers clamor for it? Frankly, while I admired Dara Joy’s ingenious setting, I never became thoroughly involved with the characters, and my appreciation was from a cool distance. My mind enjoyed the novel, but my heart was never really engaged. Ritual of Proof isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s unlike any other book you’ll read this year.