Book Review: Starhawk’s City of Refuge

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[Editor’s Note: This review contains a few spoilers.]

Review: City of Refuge by Starhawk.
Published by Califia Press (pp. 711) 

City of Refuge is the sequel to Starhawk’s novel The Fifth Sacred Thing. Both books are works of post-apocalyptic fiction.The series differs from most books in this genre. Instead of being survivalist porn centered around bullets and beans, the two books are written from an eco-feminist point of view. That is exactly what you’d expect from the author of The Spiral Dance and this may be appealing to Goddess worshippers based on that fact alone. 

In the first book called The Fifth Sacred Thing, there is a cataclysmic event that breaks the U.S. up into small surviving city-states. The story focuses on two of these city-states in what was formerly California. Califia appears to be a utopia. It is filled with gardens, and its citizens never go hungry. They share everything and are guided by a council of older wise women who dream the future. Califia’s citizens become poets, healers, and artists, making their city as beautiful as possible.

The other city is where the Stewards live. They are oppressive Christians who support their elite through slavery and military conquest. They don’t grow food – only soldiers and weapons. Women are chattel and bound to men through marriage or sexual slavery. Male toddlers are tortured into becoming soldiers without names or the ability to do anything but follow orders.

The two groups are destined for war, but how can the peaceful Califia defend themselves against the Steward’s Army? They do so by inviting the rampaging army to join them and live with them. After destroying much of the city, a fair portion of the army accepts. Love and beauty overcome a lifetime of torture, mental conditioning, and bloodlust.

This brings us to the second book: City of Refuge. The city survives, but it needs to be rebuilt. The soldiers, sex slaves, and rescued Califia citizens are having a hard time adjusting to the open and entirely voluntary society Califia provides. The soldiers have no orders or sense of self identity. The former sex slaves simmer with rage and hopelessness. And the citizens who spent years as prisoners of the Stewards are emotionally damaged and unsure if they will ever fit back into Califia society, or if Califia society is even still right for them. While they may have won a battle against the Stewards, they haven’t won the war. Another battle is quickly approaching.

The City of Refuge has numerous problems. There is an underlying current that feminine is good and masculine is bad. While the individual characters are very well done and well developed, the plot and how the mass of the societies behave are not.

But, the most surprising and disappointing is how religion is treated. Religion is bad. Period.The Christians are the villians. Even the Califia people, who nominally appear to be Pagans and the heroes, follow this rule. They may have temples. They may be eco-feminists, living those ethics. But, they do not practice any sort of Pagan religion. Religion is simply absent from them.

With that said, the book does have some strengths. As mentioned, the main characters are extremely well done. You care about them. You want to know what happens to them. You want them to heal and succeed. The style of writing is rich and flowing without being ornate or pretentious.

But the book’s greatest strength is its central question. “If our choices make us who we are,” Bird wondered, “what do we say about those bitter times when we have no choice? Does helplessness destroy?”

The main characters are all trying to answer that question.

Bird was born a free citizen of Califia, but spent years as a prisoner and soldier in the Steward’s Army. His hands ruined, his heart and mind torn, he knows he’s no longer a gentle musician. Is he a soldier? Should he go back to Steward territory to help the budding resistance hiding in the hills? And how do you “liberate a bunch of people who have no idea what liberation means?”

Smokee is a liberated sex slave who not only saw her family killed when she was a young child, but recently had her own two year old daughter ripped away from her to be turned into a sex slave. Smokee flows back and forth between rage and deep depression. She feels stifled by the seemingly open but very conformist Califia society. Even when taunted by the very soldiers who raped her for years, the Califia citizens can’t understand her attempt to stab them. After all, you can’t meet mere words with violence.

Should she be exiled? Or will a couple of female sailors, who are also escapees from the Stewards, take her in and teach her to fight back? Will she find her daughter?

River is a former Sargeant in the Steward’s Army, now living in Califia. He’s the only one, so far, to claim a name instead of a number. How can he become a someone, a somebody, when he doesn’t even realize making a choice is an option? He sees the difference between himself and the free citizens, but he has no idea how to bridge the gap. Yet River tries, and he also tries to be a leader for the other soldiers. He knows war is coming, and he wants to be ready to fight, but as a whole being, not a machine.

The bottom lineCity of Refuge has engaging characters, deep questions, but also some problematic themes,plot elements, and non-Pagan Pagans. Starhawk’s writing is excellent and the book’s flow makes for smooth reading. If you’re looking for a story that celebrates the feminine and shows an idealized eco-utopia, you are going to enjoy this series.

The Fifth Sacred Thing and City of Refuge are available in paperback and digital formats through Amazon and other online resellers.