“Daughter of the Empire” is the first novel in a trilogy by Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts; I have always assumed that the former was a minor contributant, as the style feels quite different from that of his other books, but I am told that in fact the collaboration was quite balanced. In my view, that makes this possibly the best book Feist has had a major hand in.
Nonetheless, I returned to this novel with some trepidation: the sort of pulp fantasy I used to read is now often cringe-worthy, even painful, to me. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the re-read.
The “Empire” novels are the story of Mara, who begins the first novel as a young girl (fifteen or sixteen, I believe) about to enter a religious, and seemingly monastic, order. Before she is able to do so, however, news reaches her that her father and brother have been killed, and that she is now the Ruling Lady of her family, the Acoma – an old and powerful family that has been laid low, near to death, by a long blood-feud with the stronger Minwanabi, and by the machinations of the theoretically more minor, but politically well-connected, Anasati. It becomes Mara’s duty to seek to bring her family back from the bring of extinction – but to succeed she must make bold and dangerous moves, and be prepared to offer up considerable personal sacrifice.
Unusually for the genre, these novels are not set in pseudo-Europe, but rather in pseudo-Orient (the obvious parallel is to Japan, but Wurts acknowledges that much of the “colour” of the novel is Korean in origin). At a stroke, this mitigates one of the greatest dangers of pulp fantasy: the repetitiousness and cliché of the setting, and its often transparent superficiality. No doubt this representation of medieval Japan/Korea is similarly superficial, but to an outsider this is somewhat less obvious than it would be if the setting were more familiar. Needless to say, much is made of concepts of honour, loss of face, karma (although not named as such), family, duty, expressionlessness, and other such hooks likely for a Western reader to be familiar in their preconceptions about the oriental other. The otherness is exaggerated by (often needless) use of fictional vocabulary to describe animals and plants, and by the superfluous, cliché and unexplored fact that almost all native creatures in the setting have six legs, humans being a later arrival to the planet.
This provides half of the originality of the novel; the other half comes from the femininity of the protagonist. Unlike many heroines in the genre, Mara is not a rebel against gender roles – although her father disapproved of her monastic intentions, they were perfectly respectable. She is not an exile from home and family, and although she strains at the bonds of tradition she does not break them. Consequently, her situation is more intriguingly alien to a male reader – although there are battles and assassinations in the book, there’s also pregnancy and seduction and marriage negotiations. Her sex gives her her allotted weapons; her culture sets the game in which she must fight. That game is a political game, centred around the impossibility of losing face or of being forsworn – honour, both in respect of custom and hierarchy, and in respect of vows and duties, is everything, as the only thing that keeps her society from falling into a war of all against all. Dishonoured individuals can only atone for their errors, and in doing so avoid the complete destruction of their families, through ritual suicide; yet honour does not demand goodness, only that “the forms” be observed. The result is the high-stakes “Game of the Council”, in which different families and clans struggle for power and prestige, enmeshed in relations of alliance, vassalage, enmity and blood feud. All this is overseen by the incongruously jovial and unfeigned, yet entirely callous, Warlord, voice of an invisible Emperor, and by a commune of magicians known as “Great Ones”, whose word is law – whether the Warlord has gained influence among the Great Ones, or whether the Great Ones are the secret puppet-masters who control the Warlord, is not known. At the sides of the game sit the insectoid Cho-Ja, the native species of the planet, who ally with human “landlords”, but who it becomes clear have never been understood by the humans at all.
This concept of a “Great Game”, “Game of the Council”, “Game of Thrones” and so forth is a staple of fantasy literature – but for once it feels viable here. It is true that there are no Machiavellian plotters in this Game, and that much of what happens is more a matter of exploiting chance than of complex machinations, but for once the plots are neither so paper-thin that we cannot believe anybody would fall for them, nor so convoluted and clairvoyant that we cannot believe in their success. Although the Game masquerades as chess, it seems far more similar to poker: the question is how much to risk on each hand, where the cards to be dealt are almost unpredictable. The Warlord, the Great One, the Cho-Ja, and simply the enormity of the Empire and the multiplicity of families, mean that a new card can be dealt at any time.
The entire book is therefore about politics – although there are battles, they are only politics by other means. Much of the politics is so nuanced by the culture that it must be explained to us in hindsight; likewise, the stylised speech patterns are so elliptical and contextual that there is often lengthy exegesis presented through internal monologue. Combined with the distance of the political threat, this could easily be dull and alienating, but I felt it worked quite well. Even if the threat is not always clear, it is always clear there is a threat; similarly, the amount of data compressed into their words felt realistic for a ritualised culture – neither so obvious that it was obviously fraudulent, nor so dense that it was unbelievable.
Indeed, my largest problem with the book was the lack of faith that the authors have in the readers. Mara reels from crisis to crisis, gambit to gamble, constantly in danger – and the authors feel the need to hammer home the danger each time. Generally this takes the form of annoying little summaries at the ends of each chapter, explaining that one wrong move could mean the complete end of the Acoma. This was effective at first, showing the knife-edge nature of the Game, and how unprepared Mara was for the challenges – but as the book went on, it became repetitive and patronising. By the fourth or fifth such crisis, thank you, I think I know enough about the world to see that whatever problem she’s facing is really, really dangerous. You don’t have to keep telling me.
Related to this is a problem with the structure of the book: while most of her incidents are effective, and may make sense chronologically, they are not correctly ordered in scale and significance to create an appropriately swelling motion in the book. There are, thematically and dramatically, two key “incidents” (the latter being a seemingly unsurvivable confrontation with Jingu of the Minwanabi, the man who arranged the deaths of her father and brother, in his own home), but these are placed at the middle and the end of the book. Dramatically, the middle portion of the book feels as though it needs to be moved closer to the end, both for its own sake (as it is, something that should be of immense importance feels too much like a stepping-stone) and for the sake of the novel as a whole (as its early resolution leaves a long lacuna in the second half of the book, filled by an interesting but far less dramatic or significant incident).
Many people would probably say that this misplacement reflects a wider problem: the randomness of threats. Problems emerge out of thin air for no apparent reason – that is, there are reasons for the problem, but no reasons why it occurs then. Why does a bandit attack happen at one point, or a particular invitation arrive at another? I have no objection to this, however – to me, this simply reflects and intensifies the real chaos that underlies the perfect serenity of the Game. Just as Mara and her compatriots struggle to hide their emotions behind formalities, so too their society attempts to portray itself as an elaborate mechanism, deep and sophisticated, when really it is only an undignified scramble for the scraps of opportunity handed down by chance.
Similarly, I have no problem with the fact that the novel ends with a deus ex machina: because we know all along that the “gods” are watching. The ability of external powers to interfere is known from the beginning, and it is also known that while this ability may be unpredictable and unstoppable, it is not arbitrary. Almecho (the Warlord) and his Great Ones have an interest in the game, but do not wish to break it – consequently, when they act at the end it is only because Mara has given them the opportunity. [That Mara survives with the help of higher powers is not, in my view, any great spoiler – the Great Ones are a gun on the mantelpiece throughout, and it is repeatedly emphasised that Mara, however ingenious she is, cannot win without extremely good fortune]
However, the deus ex machina does demonstrate a difficulty: although most of the plot makes sense thematically, it does not always feel dramatically justified. That is to say, the extreme constant danger Mara faces makes every moment of survival an implausible success, and this can feel as though everything is, paradoxically, too easy for her – how terrible a situation would it have to be to kill her? She’s like a political Bruce Willis – staggering from fight to fight, constantly being hurt, she’s somehow still standing at the end of the film. Although none of her individual wins feel implausible, the cumulative effect of winning so much all the time (because her threats are big enough and frequent enough that anything less than massive constant winning would mean her death) is to cheapen and even parodise the conflicts – not helped by the aforementioned melodramatic chapter-end voiceovers.
Yet Mara doesn’t have it all her way. There are serious injuries done to her (albeit more psychological than physical), people die, and she is forced to learn quickly from some bad mistakes. The problem is not so much that she is inviolable, but that she looks inviolable: very rarely does she seem to grieve as fully or as lengthily as her setbacks would demand. In part, this is necessary – were she any more prone to grief, she probably couldn’t survive – but I think a greater factor is the limited ability of the authors. In a better book, the constant success of Mara would be matched by constant losses that were not only theoretical but that also felt psychologically real.
Relatedly, Mara has very little personality development. I say “personality” rather than “character”, because there is some development: she learns a lot, often from her mistakes. Yet it is always the same Mara who gains new knowledge and skill. Although the plot demands that there is something in her suitable for rule, it nonetheless feels as though she does not demonstrate the full sweep of change that should be required for a teenage girl to turn into a successful ruler of a powerful family; nor does she flail sufficiently when first given that problem. Yes, it would be difficult for her to go more wrong at first without destroying her family entirely – but a better author would have found a way.
A second problem raised by the deus ex machina is one of world-building. Although it’s easy enough to buy Almecho as Warlord, a ruler almost but not quite beyond law itself, and it’s possible to accept the Cho-Ja, both because of their passivity and because their motivations and values are so clearly alien to those of humans, the Great Ones are a serious crack in the façade of the world’s believability. Why are the Great Ones so powerful? Why are they so withdrawn from society? Why are they so completely unified – surely even a small schism would have devastating consequences for the world? How, in short, can a world function when there is a small cadre of people so powerful, both magically and legally, that they could overthrow everything instantly? How is this miraculous stasis achieved? It is true that this may be revealed in later books – and I should maintain the semi-fiction, during this re-reading, that I haven’t read those later books. Nonetheless, I felt this to be a serious blow to the suspension of disbelief.
A second world-building and dramatic difficulty is the “Riftwar” – Almecho’s allies have created an interdimensional gate into another world (the pseudo-Europe of Feist’s “Midkemia”), and are pursuing a titanic war on that planet, mostly for the acquisition of precious iron and other metals lacking from the geology of Kelewan. I can’t help but wonder how confusing and/or absurd this must appear to a reader who has not read the Midkemia books first, since there appears to be no in-world reason for it, and the world is otherwise almost entirely free of the supernatural (although magic exists, it is very rarely used, and on all occasions it is a physically unremarkable magic, even if important in consequences – a great contrast with the world-spanning of the riftwar). We must also wonder why, if the Great Ones will aid Almecho so far, they will not go further and take over the war themselves…
Finally, the writing. The prose is… not bad. The dialogue is bad, but in a paradoxical way: although it is extremely stilted, unemotional and archaic (all things we can expect from pulp fantasy dialogue), it actually does feel appropriate. No, this isn’t what anyone would say if they were saying what they thought – but because everybody is formulating everything in their heads into a preconceived pattern of what language would be appropriate, the ‘unreality’ of their words feels real. Their speech is MEANT to be stilted, unemotional, and archaic, and whether this is intentional, or merely a happy coincidence deriving from the inabilities of the authors is not really relevant.
Adrenaline: 3/5. Despite the heavy-handed melodrama and problems surrounding Mara’s apparent invulnerability, I did find it reasonably gripping. I read it a lot more quickly than I thought I would…
Emotion: 2/5. It’s set in a world where overt displays of emotion are frowned upon – and the authors aren’t good enough to make me really feel the pain Mara must go through at certain points. In any case, the hectic pace doesn’t allow her much time for emotional reflection. That said, you’ve got to feel a little sorry for her.
Thought: 2/5. It’s not a 1, because it is in a reasonably alien setting and deals with things like honour, duty, and saving face, all seen from a female perspective. However, the possibilities for cultural contemplation are mostly passed over in favour of plot. Although Mara at severable points challenges tradition, she does so out of necessity, and we do not yet see many consequences of it.
Beauty: 2/5. Not a 1, because the various cultural concepts are aesthetically intriguing enough to provide some interest in this dimension. Also, while the prose may not be beautiful, it often describes beautiful settings – if it were a film, it would look like Hero.
Craft: 3/5. Sturdy. The prose is probably never noticeable, which is a good as well as a bad thing. As I’ve explained, the dialogue would ordinarily be bad, but it rings true to the formality of the setting. I’ve identified numerous problems with the structure of the novel, but it should also be said that this sort of political/familial novel is often hard to ring excitement out of, and they do surprisingly well. Also, several of the incidents of the novel are plotted really quite tightly (others are loose and dependent upon chance, but I’m not convinced that isn’t intentional).
Endearingness: 3/5. I wouldn’t say I disliked it. Then again, I can’t say I’m powerfully drawn to it – it was a reasonable enough read, and I’ll probably read it again some day, but it’s not going to go in my favourites pile. Comfortable, but perhaps a little hollow.
Originality: 3/5. The combination of setting and protagonist drag it up to the middle-point, which neither is striking enough to do on its own.
Overall: 4/7: Not that bad, really. What it says, really. Quite enjoyed reading it. Will defend it to people who say Feist is always terrible. Not going to give it pride of place on by shelves.