Mistress of the Empire – Feist and Wurts

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.

Reaction: The Empire Trilogy

I’m going to return to this post with overall thoughts once I’ve re-read the third book; for now, this page is an index for me to keep track of the individual reactions to the first two parts:

Daughter of the Empire


Servant of the Empire


You know what? I’m NOT going to return with overall thoughts. However, those overall thoughts can be found in the third review. I should probably reorganise and put stuff up here instead, but I’m not going to. I’ve tried to not have the later reviews have too many spoilers, though (hence increasing vagueness).

Anyway, here’s the third review:

Mistress of the Empire

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.


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.

Reaction: Daughter of the Empire

“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.

Composite: 2.57.

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.