Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Horror Book Review: Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin (transgender)

Author: Gretchen Felker-Martin

Publication Date: Feb 22, 2022
Publisher: Tor Nightfire
Genres: Horror
Protagonist Gender: Transgender
Sexuality: Bisexual

There's no polite way to put this. Manhunt fucked me up. This is a deep, dark, daring look at gender that somehow manages to be completely monstrous without ever descending into mockery. Gretchen Felker-Martin is bloody brilliant. She stunned me, amazed me, aggravated me, and excited me in equal measure. She raised me to such heights of hope and dragged me to such depths of despair that I found it hard to trust anyone or anything. 

The concept of a plague that only infects those with high levels of testosterone is as brilliant as it is terrifying. It turns the infected into ravenous monsters who exist only to rape their victims and devour their corpses. Before you think this a simple man-versus-women tale, though, Manhunt explores the full depth and breadth of gender, looking at the impact of the virus on the full testosterone spectrum. Cisgender men who cannot escape their testosterone, and cisgender boys who face the threat of mandatory castration. Transmen who have to quit the hormones that fuel their transition, and transwomen who need estrogen more than ever to keep their hormones in balance. And the story doesn't stop there. It also considers the fate of cisgender women with either too much testosterone or not enough estrogen, whether they have conditions like PCOS or are menopausal. 

In an apocalyptic future where so many are just one hormone imbalance away from becoming murderous monsters, you'd think (hope) we could all work together, look to preserve our friends and loved ones, but fear is a great motivator, and that's what makes the inevitable rise of militant TERFs as plausible as it is loathsome. As one character says in a moment of self-revelation, "What we're doing to them . . . It's just the same shit men did to use before," and that's where the heart of the conflict lies. Ultimately, the TERFs come to reflect everything they claim to be rallying against, embracing the very same masculine cruelties and injustices that their own memories have distorted out of fear and hate. They're not just the same, I'd argue they're far worse because they use, abuse, torture, and murder transwomen with a deliberate agenda of intentional cruelty, no matter how they justify it.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Manhunt, though, is how Gretchen messes with our emotions. There are so many layers of guilty affections, traitorous feelings, and gut-wrenching betrayals that it had me spinning. It hits us with one horror after another, each worse than the first, only to slip in a lesser horror, one that we should be sickened by, but which almost sounds reasonable by comparison. A memorable example is the "Cisterhood forcing little boys into their little crossdresser Hitler Youth and finding reasons to accuse each other of masculine-coded behavior." When we hear the speech to the boys, when we see the propaganda, what's being demanded of them almost seems like a reasonable alternative to dying like monsters. It's only on reflection that we realize that's a really shitty choice they're being offered, and once we come to see beneath the lies and understand the truth of their fate of castrated slavery, fate, the inhumanity of it all is that much more sickening because of that moment of doubt.

It's like a novel of psychological warfare, and if it can twist our loyalties and test our sympathies, then you can understand how the TERFs can corrupt even the most decent, innocent, well-meaning of women.

At the heart of all the politics and social commentary, Manhunt is both a romance and a family drama. Fran and Beth have such a wonderful dynamic, two transwomen who are friends, partners, and (when emotions run high) guilty sort of loves. The introduction of Robbie, a transman loner/hermit, into the mix challenges their dynamic, but they ultimately become a tragic, dysfunctional family under Indi, a cisgender woman who manufacturers their hormones. There's another romance to the novel, one between a transwoman sexworker and a cisgender soldier in the TERF army, but if I start talking about that I'm going to start screaming and crying all over again.

This is a dark, violent book. It's full of rape and murder, and the quest/mission behind it all involves the harvesting (and sometimes eating) of testicles from the monstrous men. It's not for the squeamish. There's also a significant plot that centers around pregnancy, and that is full of horrors you can't begin to contemplate until you see what that pursuit can do to women. As the story proceeds, civil unrest gives way to war (and war crimes), and the body count becomes almost too much to bear.

There's not much lightness or joy to Manhunt, although there is some very dark humor, but I have to give Gretchen props for the campfire tale about the death of JK Rowling (that was a very nice touch), and a nod-and-a-wink for naming the TERF's ultimate weapon the Galbraith

Manhunt is a brilliant piece of apocalyptic horror and social justice that's deliberately exaggerated and over-the-top. It's designed to make you think and feel, to open your eyes to the gender injustices of today, and where all those prejudices and hatreds could so easily lead. It's also a character-driven story of love and sacrifice, though, and that's what kept me reading, even through scenes that had me raging or crying. I had high hopes for this, grand expectations, and it surpassed all of them. It's brave and fucking brilliant.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀ 

My sincere thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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