Sex Wars by Marge Piercy Piatkus, $275 For more than 40 years, sex has been at the heart of much of Marge Piercy's writing. Sex in the physical sense of the word, but more particularly gender sex - as in the oppression of one by the other; as in sex wars. Piercy is a leading literary and feminist figure - as women who recall their deep connection with her early works such as Vida, The High Cost of Living and Gone to Soldiers will attest. In the late 1970s and early 80s Piercy's writing connected with women's lives in ways few authors had. Her feminist and political views were shaped by childhood poverty and the civil rights, anti- war and women's movements. She incorporated them into her fiction. Those who remember this with affection and admiration should know that the fires still burn bright. Piercy, 70 last month, author of 17 novels, 16 poetry volumes, plus essays and plays, is still a feminist, still anti-war and as committed as when she began writing in the 1960s. This is evident in her new novel, set in post-civil war New York. It's historical fiction that skilfully interweaves real and fictional characters - Piercy successfully crosses genres, with contemporary and historical fiction, poetry, plays and science fiction in her oeuvre. Sex Wars is told from the points of view of four major characters, each of whom gains a degree of power related, in differing ways, to sex. But only one, Russian-Jewish immigrant Freydeh Levin, who supports her family by condom-making, is from Piercy's imagination. That Freydeh, based partly on Piercy's relatives, melds so seamlessly into the narrative is a tribute to her creative powers. The others, women's rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, morals campaigner Anthony Comstock and Victoria Woodhull, freethinker, spiritualist and advocate of women's liberation, who was the first woman to run for US president, were real. To put faces to the names, visit Piercy's website www.margepiercy.com . Many of Sex Wars' supporting characters are also from American history: railways multimillionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt (Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, ingratiate themselves with him, using his tips to set up the first stockbroking firm run by women); society abortionist Madame Restell; suffragist Susan B. Anthony; editor and presidential hopeful Horace Greeley; preacher Henry Ward Beecher; and President Ulysses S. Grant. Apart from a brief flashback, an epilogue and a 20th-century updating chapter, Sex Wars follows its four main characters for six years, from 1868. The wars are fought on two fronts: between men and women - the struggle for women's rights, including control of their bodies and the vote - and the war on sex declared by Comstock who, determined to eradicate not only pornography and prostitution, battled contra-ception, abortion, and even art works depicting nudity. Some of the laws he campaigned for are still on the statute books. Sex Wars succeeds largely because of Piercy's exceptional research. She makes real these people and their times - the sights, sounds and smells of the New York slums, the grinding poverty and, by contrast, the lavish lifestyles of the rich, and the corruption of the Grant administration. This is a lengthy and dense but enjoyable book, constructed with Piercy's usual skill at combining political messages and a good read. Mostly - though not always - she resists the temptation to preach. It's also an important book, with great resonance today. Piercy has summed up the connections: 'I was attracted to the era after the civil war because I found it had so many of the same divisions and conflicts as our own time,' she says. 'The role of women in the public sphere and in the family, the degree to which free sexual expression was valuable, permissible, tolerated or condemned, whether Church and State should continue to be separated ... these are all deep divisions in our own time as they were then.'