Reaction: Servant of the Empire

Servant of the Empire is the second book in the Empire trilogy by Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts; as such, much is in common with the first volume, Daughter of the Empire, reviewed here recently, and most of this review can therefore be left unstated. However, some things are worth noting with this second volume.

The novel  still follows the story of Mara, Ruling Lady of the Acoma, as she protects her family against the plotting of the Minwanabi and the Anasati families, in a Japanese/Korean fantasy setting. Unlike the first book, however, Mara’s perspective does not dominate, as we are also given the view of her new slave, a barbarian from another world, named Kevin.

The first thing a reader will notice about the second volume is its length: while the first was substantial at over 500 pages, this installment is of genuine “tome” dimensions, weighing in at over 800 pages. Early on, this looks as though it will be a daunting prospect: the opening sections of the novel, as Kevin is introduced and his relationship with his owner develops, is at times painfully slow, and even the climactic events at the end of the first third feel under-dramatic. From there on, however, there is no let-up: the central third is a chaotic rollercoaster, before a slight dramatic lull leading up to the conclusion (and the briefest of epilogue sections).

The added length not only allows such a turbulent middle section, but also allows the authors to be more ambitious structurally, allowing us to see rather more of the perspective not only of Mara’s underlings but also of her enemies; in particular, the way in which Mara’s views of society, particularly toward Kevin, are challenged is paralleled by the story of an enemy First Advisor who has to deal with his own conflicted loyalties, toward his divinely-appointed master or that master’s far more talented junior relative. The theme is obvious: Mara will succeed only through flexibility, while the rigid obedience to duty of her enemies will prove their undoing. Along the way, we see several antagonistic characters fleshed out – most notably Desio and Tasaio of the Minwanabi, and Jiro of the Anasati; Desio in particular begins as a caricature but develops with unexpected subtlety. Meanwhile, Mara is now less on the defensive, and begins to operate actively on the grand stage of Tsurani politics – not always wisely.

One of the most curious elements of this series, and in particular of this book, is its relationship with Feist’s titanic Midkemia series of novels: although theoretically independent (there are only a few cameo appearances either way), this installment of the Empire books deals with a period in which the events of the Midkemian novels have a great impact on the world of Kelewan, and the consequences for the novel are fascinating. In essence, Servant is the rare epic fantasy that deals entirely with a subplot: the massive, world-shattering developments (including the introduction of  supernatural, extradimensional “Enemy”) happen almost entirely off-screen, and Mara and her enemies must simply deal with their unpredictable aftermath. This, in large part, explains the chaos at the centre of the novel: events occur, due to external agency, that are entirely unpredictable to the characters, and yet that have enourmous impact. It would be interesting to see how this would read to somebody who knew nothing of the Midkemia novels; however, I myself now have only the vaguest memory of the relevant events of the Riftwar series, and I think that a more total ignorance would only improve the book, although it would certainly make it more challenging. To a lesser extent, Midkemian knowledge may also be useful in dealing with the character of Kevin – here, knowing that his background is entirely stock-medieval fantasy may actually damage the book, where ignorance might imagine more depth behind the cultural comparisons. However, his culture is so representative of pulp fantasy that it should be familiar at the first glance.

Unfortunately, Kevin is the weak point of the book. His role is to force Mara to re-evaluate the “necessities” of her society, but the end result is less a culture clash than a painfully ethnocentric lecture from West to East that lacks any subtlety, or historical nuance. Repeatedly, Kevin expresses horror at the great poverty on Kelewan, while the nobles play their elaborate political and economic games – by itself a fair point, but here dependant on Kevin’s society itself being free of such inequalities. Kevin’s native “Kingdom of the Isles” is described, both here and in the Midkemia novels, as having all the trappings of a feudal European state, and yet it is ascribed the ideology, and in places the culture, of modern America: Kevin cloyingly eulogises his ideology of “the Great Freedom”, the illegality of slavery, and the equality of all before the law, and yet, even granting the improbable notion that such equality exists in a feudal state (and other Midkemia novels, such as Shadow of a Dark Queen, rather cast doubt on this supposition), Kevin never seems to consider how close the Tsurani system of agricultural slaves is to the agricultural serfdom his own culture is based upon. Kevin is horrified that unemployed non-slaves in the Tsurani cities are at risk of famine and disease, but are we really to expect that the Kingdom is immune from poverty? Kevin is appalled to hear that Tsurani men may treat their wives with brutality, yet his own culture is explicitly more misogynistic – Tsurani women can inherit and rule in their own right, and powerful women can fornicate at will with little condemnation, while Kingdom women are no more than penniless adjuncts to their fathers and husbands, so why on earth (particularly given the Tsurani codes of honour and familial protection) are we to accept that Kingdom women are treated with more kindness than their Tsurani counterparts? It seems we are to accept that all that matters is culture, and that social organisation is only a byproduct – where in real life we know that social structures also influence culture.  Indeed, to the extent that any rationale is given, it is the disturbing doctrine that only might brings justice: by the end, the novel is unpleasantly close to being a paean to absolute dictatorship, in which one strong, pure, kind, hereditary ruler must bring love and justice to all.

As a result, a central theme – the struggle to “modernise” the society, which in practice means the struggle to Westernise society – is given disappointingly short shrift. Mara and others offer only the most meagre defences of their way of life, and offer little criticism of Kevin’s alternative views; Kevin, for his own part, is portrayed not as idealistic but naïve, but rather as fully informed and superior in intellect – we never question that his paradise is actually real. This, of course, makes it perplexing that the Tsurani have not changed sooner – which requires us, repeatedly, to be shown how utterly stupid the Tsurani are. At times, this requires considerable mental contortion: Mara and her enemies make use of complex cultural concepts and sophisticated, innovative reasoning, only to be struck dumb by ideas so simple that even in an alien culture they must be anticipated by anyone of such supposed intellect. At one point, for instance, Kevin bargains to get his fellow slaves more food and appropriate clothing, so that they don’t all die of starvation and heatstroke – the Tsurani have owned slaves for thousands of years and are extremely mercantile, so how are we to believe they have not thought of this? This stupidity spreads into other areas as well – too much of what Mara does is clever but not so clever as to be unique, or to have as much impact as it does. In particular, I was stunned by the ease with which she acquires certain trading rights considered at that time to be worthless – surely there are enough opportunistic gamblers among the Tsurani that something so potentially profitable would not be ignored simply because it was not immediately useful? A character even remarks that the Tsurani lay their plans for the generations, not for instant gain.

Another element that is disappointingly lacking is Mara’s interaction with the alien Cho-Ja insectoids. During the first novel, Mara became friends with a Cho-Ja queen, and this friendship has important consequences in the second volume (and will go on to be significant in the third, as I recall) – and yet only the tiniest, most transitory glimpses are given of what, we are told, are daily or weekly conversations between the two. This is particularly problematic because, as well as being a culture more alien than that of Kevin (which we might hope has already inured her somewhat against culture shock), the Cho-Ja warren also is explicitly said to be a place where Mara can give up her formal self-presentation and adopt a more relexed and emotional persona – for what earthly reason do the authors not think this is something we should see?? The dealings between Mara and the queen would both enrich the presentation of the world and develop the central character in a way nothing else could – and this under-developed plot element just drifts out of the consciousness of the book as it progresses.

Mara’s journey, as said above, is too easy. By this I do not mean that it is without sacrifice (although it is not as painful as it could be), but rather that Mara achieves things without it being clear why they have been achieved. This makes her compatriots appear stupid, but it also makes it confusing how large her society is: certain developments only make sense if there are only a few other families (where, for instance, her economic decisions affect market prices dramatically), while at other times she seems to be among an immense crowd of enemies; when, at the beginning, she is in a minor placing in her clan, for instance, her clan is spoken of as minor and small, yet by the time she as accrued a measure of influence in her clan, this is held to make her a major figure in Tsurani politics. Why? When there are dozens of clans more important than her own? She collects a great deal of influence over others, but little of this is shown on-screen, and, more importantly, surely other nobles are plotting in exactly the same way? Aside from the events of the middle section, it often feels as though the Acoma and the Minwanabi are the only families in the Empire who are actually DOING anything.  What’s more, the final confrontation seems… not a deus ex machina (it is, but it is meant to be, and must be), but simply rigged in her favour – I still don’t understand what exactly the point of it was, and it seems to have unfolded in that way just because it was the only way that would yield the desired result. More generally, the climaxes throughout the book feel dull and unaffective (with one exception) – its strengths are the build-ups and the aftermaths.

World-building is also not a strength. The world of the first novel is shown in more breadth, and at a higher level (Mara is now able to deal with the lords of the empire, rather than being an afterthought, and the three ruling powers of the Warlord, the Emperor and the Magicians begin to take a more active role); but it is not really shown in any greater depth. It remains adequate, but is frayed about the edges – in particular, the exact requirements of Tsurani speech conventions seem to vary as the plot demands, from permitting casual, rough banter to prohibiting the slightest discussion. Other moments show a sloppiness in the thinking: at one point, to pick an example, attention is drawn to the buttons on a robe, without thinking that the whole reason these people are wearing wrapped robes and sashes is that they do not use buttons. Neither the clash with Midkemia nor with the Cho-Ja is used to explore the culture further, because neither alien culture is really discussed. A particular quibble I had was over religion – although it is clearly important to the Tsurani (and more attention is paid to it than in the first novel), their theology is never fleshed out; worse, Kevin is in theory a typical D&D polytheist, but in practice his entire culture seems strongly secular atheist (another example of American ideas in a faux-medieval body).

In sum: this installment is considerably more ambitious than its predecessor, both in structure and in content. This is a mixed blessing – the greater ambition allows us to see more fully the limitations of the authors.

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Adrenaline: 4/5. There are still issues about the ease with which Mara progresses, and some lack of clarity in a few plot developments. Some may find the extent to which the plot is driven by off-screen forces off-putting. That said, after a slow opening, the rest of the novel is all-action, jumping from battle to seduction to assassination to (un)natural disaster. It’s rare to find a fantasy tome of this size that is so packed with twists and turns.

Emotion: 2/5. Although more attention is paid here to Mara’s emotions (particularly romantic), she is still too cold and distant to empathise with strongly. Although bad things happen, none of them really hit fully home, in my opinion. Some surrounding characters are developed, but none of them enough to care about.

Thought: 2/5. It could easily have been a 3/5, or even 4/5, as Mara comes to terms with both Cho-Ja and Midkemian cultural differences – but this aspect is so badly handled that the greater ambition does not translate into greater effect.

Beauty: 2/5. No significant changes from the first novel.

Craft: 3/5. Still sturdy. On the one hand, points are lost due to the mishandling of the cultural themes, and due to a little more looseness in worldbuilding; on the other, it is more ambitious and sophisticated, and the structure, despite a slow beginning, feels more solid overall. There are also more really good scenes than in the first book. Overall, these two balance out, I think, to produce the same verdict as before.

Endearingness: 2/5. My annoyance with Kevin, and my dislike of being whacked over the head with blatently obvious Themes, Morals and Lessons, puts this one down a notch, unfortunately, despite its other improvements.

Originality: 3/5. As before

Overall: 4/7: Not that bad, really. Overall, about the same as the first installment – although this one shows more promise than the other, and could have considerably better.

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