Mistress of the Empire is the concluding volume of the Empire trilogy, and most of what might be said about it I have said already, in my reviews of the other two volumes. However, all three volumes have their differences. Mistress does not suffer from the pacing problems of the first two novels – the aimlessness of the first book, or the long, slow initial lacuna of the second. It’s a book that hits hard right from the beginning and ramps up tension without ceasing from then on toward a single, clearly-defined destination. It continues, unfortunately, to try to amplify this tension by continual claims about the immense dangers the protagonist faces, and while these claims ring more true now than ever, they remain annoying. It is also, if anything, too constant in its action. It is all but 900 pages long, and all action-packed, and the shear weight of incident becomes a little tiring by the end. It would have benefitted, I feel, by being broken into shorter novels, each with its own rise and fall. Indeed, the entire trilogy would have been better written as, say, a series of ten shorter novels – although the total wordcount would no doubt have been a little higher, the balance and structure of the series would have been better. As it is, many things that could have been climactic in their own right will be passed over by the reader too eager to move on to the next big incident.
That being said, it is exciting. In the overall plot, Mara faces her greatest challenges yet – challenges that not only appear insurmountable, but that the previous two books have led us to believe must be insurmountable in her world. On the small scale, there is more emphasis on personal action than before – in particular, more emphasis on missions performed by her spy-network, including one brilliant “mission impossible” style chapter. This more conventional heroic fare is balanced by plenty of personal and feminine drama. The ending of the book feels less of a deus ex machina than the two previous volumes – although in some ways it feels more problematic, as the characters by now have to some extent broken out of the machine, making the conclusion seem more authorially-influenced.
If the book is better in tension, it is worse in other areas. There is, I hate to say it, an air of laziness, or at least carelessness, about parts of the book, in both writing and plotting. Repeatedly, things were unclear to me, either because not enough care had been taken to explain a leap of the plot, or because the prose, particularly the dialogue, was lacking clarity – on occasion, I even thought the confusion might stem from some unnoticed mistake by the authors. I was also concerned that not enough effort had been taken to unify – or at least to demonstrate unity between – the culture depicted in this book and that depicted in previous books. There was considerably less focus on the alien peculiarities of Tsuranni society and behaviour, which even more than before seemed entirely mutable to meet the needs of the plot. None of this amounted to any serious plot holes that I could be sure of, but it impeded the reading experience.
Relatedly, the world-building continued to be a problem, as the scope of the story expands beyond its original setting: apparently the authors created no more material than is present in the books, and the lack of development of their ideas shows. Moreover, as the Assembly of Magicians comes to greater prominence in this book, the gaping world-holes (as opposed to mere plot-holes) raised by their existence and constitution become more salient, and are never convincingly papered over.
Another big problem was the moral of the story: essentially, that America (and its incongruous proxy in fantasy, pseudo-medieval Europe) is wonderful, and that non-American cultures are inferior and must be changed by force. Now, I have no problem with a novel having a political point. Or even with that point being central to the entire story. After all, epic fantasy is inherently political: it is epic precisely because it deals not only with individuals but with the world, and that involves an explanation of why exactly the bad guys are bad for the world and the good guys are good for it. My problem is that the politics of the novel is ham-fisted, lazy, incoherent, dishonest, and frankly alarming.
By the time of this third novel, Mara of the Acoma, our heroine, has reached a level of power where she can openly challenge the ruling powers of her world, and the ‘traditions’ they foster. Broadly speaking, this makes the novel a battle between ‘reforming’ and ‘traditionalist’ elements: the reformers being liberal and humane, the traditionalists being in favour of stagnation, deceit, slavery, and the killing of babies. There’s not a lot of doubt which side we’re meant to be on – and although the authors do make the effort to humanise the chief villain, the attempt is half-hearted and unconvincing. Traditionalists, it seems, are motivated almost entirely by childish pride and by conservativism for conservativism’s sake.
But of course, the dispute is not, or should not be, so simplistic. On the side of the traditionalists, there is little to no attempt to explore why these traditions of honour have come about, and what function they might serve. Mara’s ideals repeatedly drive her toward the threat of total civil war which might destroy the whole of her society – but it is never admitted that the threat of continual war might be a reason to allow a degree of stasis. Instead, those who try to prevent war are seen as simply being traditionalists. This is a little at odds with the account in the second novel: and what’s more, Mara at no point appears to realise that all the problems afflicting her society in the third book are the result of her actions in the second book; as a result, I see no reason whatsoever why the situation after the end of the book will not become even worse than it was to begin with.
Indeed, much of the politics here appear to be liberal wish-fulfillment: love and freedom and individualism enforced at sword-point by an absolute and unquestionable authority. It reminds me of nothing more strongly than the ideologies of liberalism absolutism in the Enlightenment – with perhaps a hint of Oliver Cromwell. Like Cromwell, Mara is lead into irreconcilable contradictions by this paradoxical ideology – but, although they are brought out fully, with her conclusions in one chapter sometimes wholly undermining her actions in the next, these issues are never addressed by the authors, who appear virtually blind to the incoherence of their character’s moral system (‘almost’ because of one mention of the irony that she only has a chance at all because her followers live by the traditional codes that she wants to abolish – but the irony is glossed over unconvincingly and never mentioned again). The problem is accentuated by the positive portrayal of the Cho-Ja, despite the fact that this insectoid, hive species in which lying is impossible and in which individual workers are happily slaughtered for the good of the many, is such an apotheosis of the Tsurani way that one might almost assume the Tsurani society was intentionally an imitation of the Cho-Ja (for instance, when a Cho-Ja Queen dies, her mindless workers are killed, just like the slaves of a disgraced Tsurani Lord). But there is no examination of why the Cho-Ja are applauded while the Tsurani are condemned.
On this note, another flaw of the novel is the development of the characters. They are rounded and vivid, but they do not really develop over time. A symptom of this was my constant inability to guess how long the series had taken, in-world: the plot both of the trilogy as a whole and of this volume unfolds over years, perhaps (according to one line in the book) decades, and there are several chapters with the phrase “two years passed” at the beginning of them. This is wholly merited, and helps give the books their epic tone – but in the face of such expansive lacunae, a strong sense of time and age must be conveyed through the writing, and the authors simply aren’t talented enough to do this. Aside from a little gradual (and vague) development of Mara’s political views, and a mention of silver hairs, there is very little to show that Mara – or any other character – has genuinely aged or changed in character. Although the writers do a better job than in previous novels of allowing Mara to be affected by events (in part because her political views now allow her to be more open), they seem to have little cumulative effect. This is likely because Mara has too little spare time in this book to sit around displaying her character – she is constantly fighting for her life – and to depict an aging woman solely through the writing of her interior monologues is extremely difficult. This should therefore be considered not so much a deficit of writing talent as a surfeit of authorial ambition.
I’ve said a lot now about what’s wrong with this book, and this series: a lot. But I’d also like to say a word, finally, about why you should buy these books. Or, at least, why you might.
– the trilogy has the style and weight of epic fantasy, but not the content. The protagonist is a woman (and not even a tomboy) who by the end is in middle-age, and marriages and babies are very important. The setting is not brilliantly realised, but it is vivid and it is not European. There are mentions of battles against a great supernatural “Enemy” that threatens the world – but all such business occurs off-screen and is not the subject-matter of these books. Instead, the content is concerned with familial and political disputes.
– the trilogy is dark. It never wallows in darkness – perhaps, it is always too clinical, too austere, never making the most of the tragedies contained. But the shear amount of death, much of it not pleasant death, is extraordinary. People are tortured to death – entire regiments die agonisingly at the hands of magicians. And, more than in perhaps any other novels I have read, the central characters are not spared from the world around them. Characters die – some heroically, some ignominiously, and there seems no way to build up an ‘immunity’, as in ordinary books: being saved in one chapter doesn’t mean survival through the next, and just because somebody dies heroically to save a second character doesn’t mean that the second character won’t themselves be killed off. People talk about how George RR Martin kills his characters (between a third and a half of the named characters introduced in the first book of ASOIAF die by the end of the fourth), but Feist and Wurts go even further. How many Starks have actually been killed so far? Well, in Empire, the number of named characters in the first book who survive until the end of the trilogy is virtually zero, so far as I can see.
– relatedly: the authors are ingenious in their plotting. Many things happen through the trilogy that I had not in the least expected. Sometimes, because it’s random chance, sometimes because I trusted to the traditions of fantasy, and one or twice as the result of ingenious deceptions by the authors.
– finally, action: so many things happen. Sure, a reader of short sensational novels might complain that the trilogy is immense and horrifically slow in places – but by the standards of epic fantasy, the twists and turns are breathtaking. Not always well paced, but certainly plentiful.
As a result of these virtues, although I would not consider recommending this series to most people I know, I would not hesitate to do so in some cases. If you like epic fantasy and want something a little different; if you can handle massive tomes; if you aren’t demanding the very highest levels of prose, world-building or characterisation: this trilogy could be a pleasantly different way to kill time until the next book you’re really interested in comes out.
If you hate long books, if you hate politics, if you hate machinations, if you demand brilliant writing, if you demand complete emotional involvement… then you will utterly despise these books. But they’re actually not that bad.
Adrenaline: 5/5. Perhaps I’m being a bit generous, but I was gripped throughout, even despite the many frustrating flaws I encountered in the novel. It provides both moments of thrill and long periods of drama.
Emotion: 3/5. As before, the authors aren’t able to portray the full emotional impact that the events in the books merit. Nonetheless, the shear weight of tragedy and heroism on display pushes the score up a notch.
Thought: 2/5. It has themes; they’re just dealt with very badly.
Beauty: 2/5. As before.
Craft: 3/5. I really want to push this down to a 2, because I feel that much of the writing in this book is a step below its predecessors. However, I have to admit that this is balanced by superior pacing and plot structure, and some ingenious twists.
Endearingness: 3/5. Much the same as the first book. Although the politics is even more incoherent than in the second book, the tone is less hectoring, as it no longer focuses on Kevin educating Mara about morality.
Originality: 4/5. Plenty of plot twists, total author brutality, more alien-seeming setting.
Overall: 5/7. Good! Perhaps not the best written of the three, but nonetheless the best.