As I have said before, my “25 Series To Read In 201x” reading challenge is meant to allow me to touch base with trilogies (and longer series) that are out in publication currently and have proven to be big successes while also going back to read some classics, especially a few favourites that I have not revisited in the longest time. For this year’s challenge, one of the series that found its way to my list is the Empire trilogy by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts, a trilogy that stands as one of the best fantasy series I’ve read to date, for far too many reasons. And going back to it last month proved to be a blast.
The Empire trilogy is set on the world of Kelewan in the Empire of Tsuranuanni. In his Riftwar Saga trilogy, Raymond introduced us to the worlds of Midkemia and Kelewan which became locked in a grand war across time and space. In this particular trilogy with Janny, he tells us of the events happening on the other side of the conflict, as the Riftwar novels mostly focus on Midkemia. The books focus on young Mara of the Acoma, the last scion of her family as she struggles to rebuild her family’s fortunes and carves out her own political identity in a world of strict social mores and ruthlessly cunning rivals.
I first read this book in 2002, if I recall correctly. I had just finished reading the Riftwar Saga and a friend turned me to this book, which our school library fortunately had stocked recently. And not only just Daughter of the Empire, but also the two sequels, Servant of the Empire and Mistress of the Empire. As a big fan of the Riftwar saga, I was really keen to dive into this trilogy, and the premise really excited me. Raymond had created a really vivid picture of Tsurani society and culture in his first trilogy, and though we spent some time in the Empire with our protagonist Pug, we never really delved too much into it. This series looked set to change all that.
We are introduced to Mara in the very first pages. Having recently renounced her family name, she is preparing to undergo the final rituals of becoming a novitiate in the priestly Order of Lashima when the ceremony is interrupted by Keyoke, the senior-most general of the Acoma forces. A rather emotional scene happens then as she learns that her father and brother are both dead in the war and that she is the last remaining Acoma. So begins Mara’s journey to seize controls of her family’s nearly-dwindled fortunes and rebuild the strength and power that it once commanded.
Daughter of the Empire is a novel that deals with Tsurani culture and society on a very personal level. When I first read these novels, I thought that the culture was based off Japanese culture from the shogunate periods, but I learned last year that the inspiration had actually been Korean society, if I remember correctly. Not that mattered much to an impressionable young man to me at the time. I saw warriors who valued honour above all else. I saw powerful lords who gambled with the lives of everyone under their protection. I saw villains and heroes. I saw simplicity and cunning. The novel, then and now, packs one hell of a punch when it comes to depicting the various facets of Tsurani society and Mara as a protagonist specifically.
One thing that is emphasized again and again in the novel is that Mara, once she finally accepts that she is the last remaining Acoma and that she must do everything she can to keep her family name alive, is someone who values the long game and who seeks to capitalize on any and every advantage she can to further her goals. When she becomes Ruling Lady, she inherits a force of just 37 soldiers, with pretty much all of her father’s army of some 2500 soldiers dead on the “barbarian” world of Midkemia. The family has finances aplenty but lacks security. The political cachet is also at the lowest since where Lord Sezu was of a keen political mind and Lano was being groomed as the heir, Mara led a much simpler life and is untested in politics. And so she has to use every trick at her disposal to secure her fortunes. To establish alliances via marriage and trade that can see the Acoma name live on and not die in infamy.
The writing here really is superb. Raymond and Janny’s collaboration works wonders here and we get to see a very personal side of things. Yes, we do get the “cliched” scenes where Mara uses her beauty and womanly charms to her advantage, but the difference here is that none of it is gratuitous and that the scenes are dealt with in a fairly respectful manner. And the thing is that there’s always a lot of different layers to what is going on in any one scene, even these scenes that you might initially think are just for titillation are about so much more else. We learn more about how the men see the women and how the women see the men; the political intricacies between different families and clans and how it all relates to the Tsurani rulers, the Warlord and the Emperor; relations between the Tsurani and the cho-ja who co-exist with the Tsurani within the bounds of the Empire; and so on and on.
If you want to read a fantasy novel that presents a very different culture than the pseudo-European stuff you usually find, then Daughter of the Empire is definitely what you should read. Published some 27 years ago, this book still stands the test of time I think and like I said above, is also one of the best books I’ve read to date. Seeing so much of Mara and her plans and motivations, how she negotiates the pit of snakes and treachery that is Tsurani society, how she eventually goes on to defeat her greatest enemy (for now), it is a wonderful experience.
The book might not be a perfect one, because there are some missteps occasionally when the story drags down a bit and sometimes the tempo isn’t really on a proper curve, but none of that takes away from the story or the characters themselves. You are still working towards an end goal. Each big arc is a phase in Mara’s life, and it all goes together in the end to a spectacular and tense finish, just the kind I wanted to see.