The Power

by Naomi Alderman

Hardcover, 2017

Call number



Little, Brown and Company (2017), Edition: F First Edition, 400 pages


Suddenly - tomorrow or the day after - teenage girls find that with a flick of their fingers, they can inflict agonizing pain and even death. With this single twist, the four lives at the heart of Naomi Alderman's extraordinary, visceral novel are utterly transformed.

Media reviews

Alderman [...] imagines our present moment — with our history, our wars, our gender politics — complicated by the sudden widespread manifestation of “electrostatic power” in women. Young girls wake up one morning with the ability to generate powerful electric shocks from their bodies, having developed specialized muscles — called “skeins” — at their collarbones, which they can flex to deliver anything from mild stings to lethal jolts of electricity. The power varies in its intensity but is almost uniform in its distribution to anyone with two X chromosomes, and women vary in their capacity to control and direct it, but the result is still a vast, systemic upheaval of gender dynamics across the globe.
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Alderman has written our era's "Handmaid's Tale," and, like Margaret Atwood's classic, "The Power" is one of those essential feminist works that terrifies and illuminates, enrages and encourages.
The novel is constructed as a big, brash, page-turning, drug-running, globetrotting thriller, one in which people say things such as: “It’s only you I’ve blimmin come to find, isn’t it?” and “You wanna stand with me? Or you wanna stand against me?” But it’s also endlessly nuanced and thought-provoking, combining elegantly efficient prose with beautiful meditations on the metaphysics of power, possibility and change.

Library's review

Speculative Fiction imagines other worlds, other timelines, and The Power does this in an interesting fashion, focusing on the notion of where Power comes from, who has traditionally wielded it, and how. The central dynamic of the novel involves an evolutionary twist in which a new internal organ (a "skein") gives women a devastating power and, essentially, control of the world. Of course, it's not quite that simple, and the ending suggests a never ending loop in terms of gender roles and relations, rather than a final outcome (be it apocalyptic or utopian). (Brian)… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member rivkat
Girls, and then women, worldwide start developing the power to administer electric shocks; many of them can make the shocks fatal. My thoughts about this are conflicted. The book feels like a move in a second-wave feminist argument: power is sexy; if most women could easily kill other people and men usually couldn’t, women would act like men and men would act like women; all power corrupts, and all power has branching effects that are fractal/not entirely predictable from the center (like lightning, see?).

The frame narrative in which a man amusingly (to his indulgent female betters) reconstructs a forgotten world in which men had power over women doesn’t make sense, because the core story includes realistic details that the frame narrative insists are lost to history. And the ways in which women quickly reverse all our current stereotypes and atrocities to inflict them on men didn’t work for me. The twentieth century is replete with evidence that discrimination, and even genocide, can arise quickly, so I can’t say it wasn’t plausible in some sense, but this version didn’t feel inventive enough to be worth the effort. Women immediately switching to rape as part of warfare, sexually harassing men in the workforce, deciding that they were more intelligent than men, denying men the right to drive, requiring all men to have female guardians (because they’re so dangerous on their own), even ultimately engaging in male genital mutilation so that only electric stimulation could get them hard and orgasm was often painful; men starting to simper and pretend to be dumb to curry favor with women—all this seemed to lack imagination.

More broadly, I have deep reservations about the implicit argument that, if women could easily kill men, the current social category “men” would turn into the current (or even more retrograde) social category “women.” First, there’s the question of ideology: so far, patriarchy has been relatively successful at revaluing male as good and female as bad no matter what—see, e.g., the treatment of doctors (a heavily female profession in Russia, heavily male traditionally in the US). The counterargument can’t lightly be set aside: the book shows a political candidate who loses her temper and nearly shocks her male opponent when he says something nasty to her, and it’s that very display of nearly unchecked power, and willingness to use it, that wins her the election even though people say they disapprove. After 2016 I can’t say for sure that voters would react otherwise, but I also think there’s an existing narrative of female unreliability/emotionality that would work against such a switch. After all, it’s not like Trump actually was stronger than Clinton—he’s an unhealthy coward. I have trouble believing that women would become the class to whom that kind of power was attributed and for whom that kind of willingness to harm was valued in a few years. But even after that, the implicit argument of the book is that systematic oppression grows out of the physical power disparity of men and women, to which I respond: chattel slavery was imposed on people who were often physically more powerful than their enslavers. There were indeed revolts, some of them successful, but slavery also persisted where enslavers were able to keep enslaved people divided, to threaten them with massive retaliation if they exercised their physical power against enslavers, and to hold hostages for good behavior. With a preexisting ideology supporting patriarchy and preexisting divisions among women (not least race-based), I am dubious that the switch the book describes would happen. I presume the thought is, well, that’s why the Cataclysm occurred—there was enough of a backlash to create global war sufficiently destructive to leave almost no intact artifacts or even information behind. But even if that’s the worldbuilding answer, by only featuring characters who accept that the polarities of gender have been reversed, Alderman creates the impression of unity in reaction (even if a lot of the men are mad about the change, they all accept that it has happened).

The characters are also mostly—well, I can also no longer say that cartoon villainy is implausible; 2017’s storyline is proof of that. But that doesn’t mean that it’s fun to read about, or what I go to f/sf to get. Still, I have to admit that even though I’ve tried to unlearn a lot of gendered codes I was discomfited by the supplicating tone in which the man in the frame story wrote his female mentor—and I likely wouldn’t have been as sensitized to the same note written by a young woman to her male mentor.
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LibraryThing member beserene
Hooooooooooly crap, y'all. This book is AMAZING. And seriously violent and triggery and, on many levels, a depressing meditation on the fact that humans are garbage. At the same time, however, it is absolutely cathartic; while it may very well trigger those who have had sexual assault and abuse experiences, I would encourage fellow survivors to read it anyway, because the process of the book creates an emotional and experiential arc that, in the end, is both horrifying and deeply, deeply satisfying.

Let's be clear: this is speculative fiction that looks toward the near future and is drawn straight from today's very real gender dynamics. In the book, teenage girls and women manifest the power to produce electricity in their bodies sufficient to electrocute -- you might imagine that such power turns society on its head, and it is that upheaval that the novel follows. It's also set up a book-within-a-book, with far future citizens looking back at what would be our near future and arguing amongst themselves about what's true in their history. That very set up creates enough distance to make even the more violent scenarios of the internal story fascinating in context.

A friend of mine told me that there are two camps of people who read this book: those who think it should be viewed purely as a meditation on the absolute corruption of power (which, on many levels, it definitely is) and those who finish the book with the phrase "Burn it all down" on their lips. I leave you to decide which camp you are in, but I'm telling you that you need to read this book. The very last line of the very last far-future letter puts the entire novel in perspective -- when you read it, it will hit you. Amazing. Seriously.
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LibraryThing member jackdeighton
The Power imagines what it would be like, how interactions between the sexes would be affected, how society would be changed, if women developed the ability to administer electric shocks – in much the same way a manta ray can. The premise is a fantastical one but is given a Science-Fictional rationale by positing an area of muscle across the collar bone, called a skein, as a centre for the power and an origin for the mutation in a Second World War chemical agent (Guardian Angel) which protected against gas attacks, which inevitably leaked into the environment.

The story of how this power changes the world is told mainly through four points of view: Allie, who becomes the head of a new religion emphasising God’s female nature by transforming herself into Mother Eve; a London gangster’s daughter called Roxy; Margot Cleary, a US city mayor eager for further political advancement and Tunde who, initially by accident, becomes the journalistic chronicler of events.

There is, of course, a backlash to the new reality, both in the political sphere and in the darker (and perhaps not so hidden) recesses of the internet. One conspiracy theorist called UrbanDox believes that Guardian Angel was leaked deliberately just to do men down.

Yet Alderman’s is no simplistic account. Biblical cadences emphasise the mythical nature of the origins of her future society. Her characters are by and large agreeably nuanced, their actions not entirely predictable but still credible. Roxy is wonderfully realised but I wasn’t entirely convinced by Alderman’s US ones, and wondered whether Saudi Arabian women would throw off sexual inhibitions quite so quickly as one does here. But I suppose in the heady throes of a revolution anything might go and Alderman’s tale implicitly argues that human nature is indivisible, characteristics and behaviours shown by any one individual may or may not be shown by others, irrespective of their sex.

Where I have major reservations is with the framing device, a series of letters supposedly sent five thousand years hence between “Neil” and “Naomi” wrapped around the contents of a manuscript whose title page reads The Power: a historical novel by Neil Adam Armon (the anagram is easily deciphered) and which purports to be an imaginative, speculative, account of how the power originated and precipitated what became known as the Cataclysm. These letters stand on their heads widely held beliefs (in our present) about the proclivities and habits of, and attitudes to, men and women. Alderman’s point in a nutshell, but perhaps a little too heavy-handed. Between each section of the book (which count down from the power’s first appearance to the Cataclysm) are illustrations of little understood artefacts from around the time described in the manuscript. The interpolation into the manuscript of seemingly intact “Archival documents relating to the electrostatic power, its origin, dispersal, and the possibility of a cure” also strains credibility. How could they have survived more or less intact, remaining understandable, when the illustrated artefacts did not? Moreover the manuscript itself is too close to present day speech patterns – especially in the character of Roxy – to make the framing device believable. A five thousand year hence Neil Adam Armon would have got so much of our present wrong that he actually gets right. From this point of view it might have been better just to present the story as speculation rather than an imagined history from the future. This is a very purist position, of course, which argues for every detail of the overall book to be true to its own reality as presented to the reader - and very difficult to bring off. And anyway, SF is always about the present, never the future (or in this case the manuscript’s distant past.) I also doubt whether the inhabitants of such a world would in fact call the historical break a cataclysm but all this is mere quibbling. Though its interpretation of human nature, power and how it is implemented is bleak, The Power is engrossing, well written and with a lot to say about relationships between the sexes.
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LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
There has been a lot of hype about this book, which only increased after it won this year’s Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize. For once, it is absolutely justified. In fact, I wonder whether the various plaudits spread across the cover really tell the full story.

I bought it as a bit of a punt while on a post-payday spree at the flagship branch of Waterstone’s, succumbing as all too often to the enthusiastic suggestion of one of the engaging and knowledgeable staff who seem to abound there. I have occasionally had my fingers burnt and sworn never to listen to them again … until the next time. Well, the woman who recommended this book definitely deserves any commission she might have received from my purchase.

It seems to cross several different genres, excelling in each of them. While reading it I was considering how I might describe it, and found myself wavering between dystopian literature, science fiction, political observation, satire and straightforward thriller. Well, they will do for a start, though there are also moments of wry humour and quasi-religious bliss.

It also classifies as meta-fiction, with the bulk of the book taking the form of a manuscript of anthropological research into the events that culminated in a devastating, world-eclipsing apocalypse, sandwiched by brief correspondence from the supposed researcher and his editor. Their closing exchanges form the crowning glory of an already marvellous novel.

The story revolves around the discovery that, when finding themselves placed under sudden stress, some girls and young women can generate and apply a devastating electrostatic charge. This becomes known as ‘the power’. Having once unleashed the power, young women find that they are also able to release it in older women. All at once, around the world girls find that they can not only protect themselves from physical assault, but can use their charge as an offensive weapon, too.

Alderman describes masterfully the way in which the phenomenon spreads around the world and how different cultures respond. The story focuses on four characters: Allie, who unleashes the power to enable herself to escape from her abusive adoptive parents; Margot, mayor of a northern city in the USA who is ambitious to progress further up the political ladder, though that aspiration is challenged by the sudden awakening of the power in her elder daughter; Roxy, daughter of an East End villain who yearns to avenge the murder of her ‘gangster’s moll’ mother; and Tunde, a Nigerian student who captures mobile phone footage of some early incidents of the unleashing of the power, and launches a successful career as an international journalist as a consequence. The novel unwinds with interpolated narratives following each of these characters, with a few others thrown in, as the story counts down towards an unspecified event.

I don’t want to say much more about the content for fear of inadvertently offering spoliers. Alderman manages the separate threads very capably, interspersing them with facsimile archeolgical notes and addenda, all of which lend a deep patina of verisimilitude. Any dystopian literature, particularly if there is an essentially feminist theme, will automatically draw comparisons with Margaret Atwood. In this case those worthy plaudits are entirely justified. This is, quite simply, an amazing, imaginative and haunting novel.
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LibraryThing member kk1
Despite its title, I found this book to be disempowering and depressing (as a woman).
Women gain powers and use them to control, bully, maim, kill men. Hello dystopia, my old friend.
I found it hard to connect with the characters. The strongest passages were when she was writing about how Tunde felt in his new position as vulnerable, hunted male. It illustrated how women can feel just walking past a group of threatening or more powerful men and how they change their behaviour/posture.… (more)
LibraryThing member atreic
OK, all the criticisms of this are fair. It's rapey and it's dark and it's grim and overwrought, and the metaphors are laid on with a trowel. But I really enjoyed it. From the smart business woman trying to live a lie and hide her power, to the wild women living out in camps and hunting men, it packed a big punch with a host of flawed characters I still really cared about.… (more)
LibraryThing member Iira
I have mixed feelings about this. I wanted to like it so bad, but at the same time it was so obvious, so unsurprising, so childhish. Women gain a power that makes them physically superior to men, making it possible for them to electrocute them by touch. I mean, come on. It can't only be about who has the physical power. What about intelligence? Apparently not an issue, when it comes to humans. I don't know why I was so disappointed in this, I expected The Power to be something more I guess. I also expected the story to be more than an extended short story, which is what this felt like. Still, I gave this four stars, because 1) it's a dystopia 2) it's by Naomi Alderman and 3) it has a great cover.

And also to remind myself that good books are great even though I expect them to be better. I just have to remember how bad the crappy ones are.
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LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
The Power seemed like it was going to be great. The idea is that teenage girls discover that they have the power to control electricity, as in use it as a weapon. They pass the ability on to older women. At first you see women freeing themselves from the oppressive control of men, and I was just thrilled. Then it goes all Lord of the Flies and you find women can’t be trusted with this power, they turn out to be not only just as bad as men, but bad in exactly the same way. I have to think that after centuries or millennia of living under the boot of oppression women would have learned a little something about equality. Evidently Naomi Alderman doesn’t, which is surprising. I loved her novel Disobedience. It highlighted hope and inner resource the way The Power doesn’t. Did something happen to her in between writing these two books? I’m going to guess that this dour, pessimistic book is going to end up being the far greater financial success… (more)
LibraryThing member Jessiqa
What if women, starting with teen girls, suddenly developed an extraordinary electrostatic ability? How does this change gender dynamics? Politics? The whole world? With this new ability, women finally have the power to upend the patriarchy.
The story follows the lives of just a handful of people in this new world: a young woman in Britain from a crime family, a young mixed-race woman in America who has been in the foster system most of her life, the mayor of a major city whose daughter shares her power with her, and a Nigerian reporter (the only male POV in the story) who travels the world documenting the political changes as they happen.
The first half of the book is incredibly empowering to read as a woman. The women in this book no longer have to be afraid to walk alone at night. They can seek their own retribution. It kicks ass. Come the second half of the book, though, things take a turn for the worse. Our main characters suffer some defeats, and the world itself becomes more and more dystopic. (Of course, since the author basically just gender flipped everything, to call a world in which women are in charge and men are subjugated a dystopia, means that we also have to recognize that the real world we live in where women are subjugated, is also a dystopia. Food for thought there, for sure.)
Overall, I really enjoyed the book. Some characters took some time to grow on me, and most of them surprised me in their own ways. I wish the author had included more diverse perspectives. What happens to trans people in this world? What about black women in America? Or anywhere else? What of people in Asia? There is so much more room for other stories within this world and I wish the author had taken that opportunity. Nonetheless, I think this book will appeal to readers of science fiction and feminist stories.
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LibraryThing member msf59
“Power has her ways. She acts on people, and people act on her.”

In the near future, in a very recognizable world, girls and then women, discover a hidden “power” that gives them the ability to shock and if desired...kill, notably abusive men. Yep, the tables have turned and this makes for a timely read, but power also corrupts, so not all is rosy.
Told in alternating chapters, from different character viewpoints, the novel unfolds, in funny and biting ways. It is not as deep and introspective as The Handmaid's Tale but the author still offers plenty to chew on. I am not going to divulge anymore of the various plot-lines but I was highly entertained and give it a strong recommendation.

*This is also a terrific audiobook, if you want to go that route.
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LibraryThing member sturlington
What can I say about this book? I know it will be very divisive--some people will love it, some will hate it. I loved it. It posits what if a power awakens in women, an innate ability to generate electric power, so that they can defend themselves and hurt other people, so that they, in just a few years, become more powerful than men? I found this book exciting, challenging, uncomfortable, sometimes horrific, and just thought-provoking on so many levels--our assumptions about gender roles, about power structures, about religion, about history and who writes it. And it's also just a really good story, with lots of characters you care about and back-stabbing and power plays and revolution.… (more)
LibraryThing member tandah
Think this would have been a great short story; possibly two short stories - but as a novel, felt the concept was stretched out across choppy, choppy chapters with really limited plot holding it together - I think the structure may appeal more to sci-fi fans.
LibraryThing member SChant
This book took me back to some of the 70's feminist SF that I loved.It has the sharp humour of Joanna Russ - The Female Man, The Adventures of Alyx - and the bitter anger of Suzy McKee Charnas's Holdfast Chronicles, but with a more nuanced sense that power corrupts for whatever reason it's wielded. I enjoyed this immensely and will certainly pick up her earlier works.… (more)
LibraryThing member wyvernfriend
I'm still not sure about the framing device, writing it as if it was a historic novel, the artefacts were interesting, particularly when they invoked the "bitten fruit motif" which made me think and then head-slap. It's a story of women getting power, a control of electricity that is caused by a chemical that accumulates and causes a mutation that means that women have the ability, like electric eels, to generate and to shock and, surprise, surprise they use it and abuse it. The Framing story is about a male writer submitting this to a published about the distant past and while it adds to the story I'm not sure it adds enough to justify it being there. I loved the sketches and artefacts (particularly the Bitten Fruit Motif stuff, which did make me giggle). This story follows some of the pivotal women in the change and sees how they cope with the change and with the new world they're facing.

I'm not entirely sure how things got from the framing story from the current pieces but it pulled me in and kept me reading and I really did enjoy the ride and could see how it really did reflect reality.
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LibraryThing member mooingzelda
This is a very clever book. It's not the first novel to shine a light on the state of today's world by using a 'what if...?' scenario, but The Power does it more effectively than many other books working along these lines.

The most powerful moment is definitely in the 'present day's correspondence that bookends the main story, but I really enjoyed the main story too. I liked that there were perspectives from both men and women, although I would maybe liked to have seen more from the point of view of a woman not in agreement with the way things pan out.

I'll definitely look up Naomi Alderman's other works after reading this!
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LibraryThing member iansales
This was the first of three books I took with me to Finland to read during the trip, and during whatever downtime I might have during Worldcon75. I pretty much finished the novel before the first day of the con was done. Which I suppose is a testament to its readability. I had high hopes for The Power. At one point, it seemed a serious contender for the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist this year, and while the Shadow Clarke Jury ended up split on the book, and it never even got a look in with the actual jury, it did sound interesting enough to be worth a punt. But, oh dear. The central premise is brilliant: young girls develop the ability to generate electricity like electric eels, and the scaffolding to back it up is well-built (Alderman namechecks Peter Watts in her acknowledgements). But this is then used in service to a feeble cross between a transatantlic thriller and a BBC euro-thriller plot. There are three main narratives: a young woman in the East End of London, who witnesses her mother’s brutal murder, and ends up taking over her father’s gangster empire; the ex-athlete trophy wife of the Moldovan president, who desposes him and turns her country into women’s state; and an American orphan, who proves have the strongest power of all, and who starts up a religion with herself in the Christ role. The entire book is framed as a novelisation of “historical events” written a millennia or so later in a world in which women are the dominant gender. It’s not very subtle. I enjoyed the book, but I found it disappointing as the three narratives were such obvious ways of treating the concept, and made it all feel more like a techno-thriller than a commentary on its premise. I gave the book away after I’d finished. I hope the person I gave it to is more impressed than I was.… (more)
LibraryThing member harmen
Not particularly subtle, but fun enough. Could have been a lit less bloody.
LibraryThing member Kristelh
This is a bit of speculative fiction, dystopic, apocalyptic that also is a bit of horror. In this award winning story by Alderman. Things are reversed. Women suddenly have the Power and with that power they can be cruel. The story is framed by some letters between a Naomi and a Neil who are writing to each other about their writings. The book uses some unique styling with these letters, some crude sketches of an ancient civilizations and the actual story is the book written by Neil. It is a work of feminism but it left a sour taste for me. I did not like these women and their abusiveness. I didn't much care for any of the characters until the end and then I kind of liked two of them. The devices did not lend themselves well to the story, the characters were too many and perhaps less with more character development might have been helpful. The book was not readable to me in that I could put it down and avoid going back to it. Otherwise it is easy enough to read and one should be able to 'power' through it. Achievement-won the Bailey's Women's Prize in 2017. Read for book club February 2018.… (more)
LibraryThing member alanteder
The premise and the world building here were intriguing and well-imagined. The energy was somewhat dispersed though by too many protagonists (4 story lines) not all of which were compelling. The story came together best with the Tunde and Roxy linkup but that isn't until the late sections. The double-layered meta-framing also drags it down somewhat i.e. mild With the bookended notes from two writers about the book itself that one of them is writing, and then within that book there is an additional time leap were the events are being observed as a "cataclysm" from thousands of years in the future. By those devices you are regularly reminded the events are not quite "real.". It weakens/lessens the impact.

This is not a YA book due to scenes of brutal sexual violence.
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LibraryThing member mrgan
This feels like essential 2017 reading, capturing a moment in our culture that’s precise, but also reflective of human condition through all time. In a fairer world, half of all popular books would read this way.
LibraryThing member JBD1
Aside from taking a brief break to eat supper, I read this clean through in a sitting; I just couldn't bring myself to stop. It is a brilliant book, reminiscent of The Handmaid's Tale (in that it is framed as a historical narrative set many years in the past). Alderman's story is a dark and troubling one, but it sure makes for a page-turning and provocative read.… (more)
LibraryThing member njgriffin
I really thought I was going to like this a lot more than I did. The first 100 pages or so flew by with an almost intoxicating pace. (apart from the very clumsy front end of the very clumsy bookends of the novel). Thought this was going to be a 4 or 5 star read.

It is not a new or novel idea but there is nothing wrong with that. There is a lot to like in the book but it is too muddled in may of its themes and looses too much momentum in the middle and never quite recovers. Shame really.

Maybe if these ideas are new to you then perhaps it would have more impact. However, I do think that Naomi has a much better book in there waiting to come out.
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LibraryThing member rglossne
Young women all over the world discover that they have electrical power that can be used to shock and kill running through their bodies. What happens when women develop the power to take over the world? Will they use that power for good, or evil? Will the world become a peaceful place, or more violent than we can imagine? This speculative novel tells its story through the eyes of a daughter of a London crime family, a young woman who claims the title of Eve, a young male reporter, and an American politician and her daughter. This is a page-turning, thought-provoking read.… (more)
LibraryThing member ecataldi
Poignant, powerful, and wonderfully different for a change. For once, women are the power hungry, the dominant, the top of the food chain. Eerily reminiscent of The Handmaid's Tale and other dystopian literature, The Power chronicles the female ascent to the top. Worldwide young girls are discovering that they have the power to release electrical charges, effectively shocking other people, sometimes to death. They also discover that when they shock older women they have the power to waken the dormant abilities. Soon women all over the world have this power and for once the men know fear. Told through multiple perspectives over a ten year span we see a female mayor aspiring to be governor, a young teenage girl with stronger raw power then anyone has ever seen, Mother Eve a prophet of the power, and a journalist, the lone male voice in this book. Together their panic, amazement, and greed tell the tale of how men became the weaker sex and the movement that changed the course of history forever, Wonderfully fresh and inventive. I loved it!… (more)
LibraryThing member twinkley
I was excited to read this book and unfortunately, it didn't live up to my expectations. I found it to be two dimensional in plot and in character development and was a frustrating reading experience. Basically the premise of the novel is that power corrupts. If women were given more power, they would become just as corrupt as men. That's it. There is nothing else new in here. The only sympathetic characters in the novel were the ones without the power. No exceptions. All the novel did was switch gender roles and stereotypes. Which is why I found this to be such an annoying and frustrating read. There weren't any nuances or three dimensional characters. The only reason why I didn't give this a one star was that it was immensely readable and full of suspense. I just couldn't like any of the characters or at the end, the novel. This is easily the worst book I've read this year.… (more)




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