Daughter of the Empire, by Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts

>> Friday, August 18, 2017

TITLE: Daughter of the Empire
AUTHOR: Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts

PAGES: 421

SETTING: Fantasy world
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: Starts the Empire trilogy

Magic and murder engulf the realm of Kelewan. Fierce warlords ignite a bitter blood feud to enslave the empire of Tsuranuanni. While in the opulent Imperial courts, assassins and spy-master plot cunning and devious intrigues against the rightful heir. Now Mara, a young, untested Ruling lady, is called upon to lead her people in a heroic struggle for survival. But first she must rally an army of rebel warriors, form a pact with the alien cho-ja, and marry the son of a hated enemy. Only then can Mara face her most dangerous foe of all--in his own impregnable stronghold. An epic tale of adventure and intrigue. Daughter of the Empire is fantasy of the highest order by two of the most talented writers in the field today.
Things have been kind of stressful lately, so I've been doing a fair bit of rereading. Lots of Nora Roberts and Jayne Ann Krentz, which have always been my go-to comfort reads, but there's a new kid on the block! You wouldn't think a book with loads of political intrigue in a high fantasy setting could be a comfort read, but Katherine Addison's wonderful The Goblin Emperor manages it. I loved it just as much as the first time (yep, the A+ was well-earned), and the last page left me wanting to read more of something like it.

So I yet again went looking for read-alikes. I wasn't particularly successful the first time round, but but lo and behold, this time I found a thread on reddit with quite a few seemingly well-considered responses! The Empire trilogy was one of the recs, and it sounded like it might be exactly what I was looking for.

Mara is within seconds of taking vows and entering a religious order forever, when news arrives of the death of her father and brother. Mara is the only one in the family left, and without pausing for breath she has to take over as Ruling Lady of the House of Acoma.

It's a dangerous time. Her father and brother died as a result of treachery from an enemy House, and it was quite the massacre. The Acoma House has been left in a terribly weakened state, and keeping it alive will take a cool head, ruthless nerve, and creative thinking about how tradition can be bent without fully breaking it. Fortunately, Mara has all that, and has been lucky in her advisors.

I found this to be quite a mixed bag, unfortunately, starting well but then incorporating more and more elements that didn't work for me at all. I did like the political intrigue and seeing how Mara thought outside the box and turned impossible situations into triumphs. The authors are successful in not revealing all of her plans, even though we're in her POV, without making it feel fake. They would introduce some hints about Mara's ultimate aims, but keep the details hidden, and that succeeded at raising the intrigue quite well.

I also liked the setting, which felt sort of Japanese to me (although now that I finished it I've seen it mentioned that the authors took some inspiration from Korean traditions), with a complex structure of traditions.

Unfortunately, that was about it for what I liked. There were too many elements that I thought weren't good at all. For starters, I wasn't a great fan of the writing. I always find it hard to describe what it is about a particular style of writing that doesn't work for me, but I'll give it a shot. The best way I can describe it is that it felt dated. It's strange, because I happily read 19th century novels without feeling the writing is dated, but that's the word that comes to mind for this book. It's kind of bombastic and self-important, and it gets only more so as the book goes on.

My next problem is one that is purely a matter of personal taste, but what can I say, it was a problem for me. At one point in the book Mara enters a marriage which turns abusive extremely quickly. It's obvious throughout that Mara is playing some sort of long game, and it's not really a spoiler that she's successful in it, but I hated it anyway. Up until then we'd had a heroine who'd taken to power like a duck to water and had been awesome at the machinations required. And then suddenly she's in a situation where she's subservient to a brute and all the agency she has for a very long section is through suggestion and manipulation. It annoyed me. I wasn't sold on the idea that taking this huge risk (and there was a huge element of chance involved in the right outcome coming about in the end) was necessary. I kept wanting to go back to the Ruling Lady all through that section.

And that issue I mentioned about not being convinced that taking that risk was necessary was something that kept coming up. There are an awful lot of instances when Mara makes plans that seem unnecessarily risky and that depend on a large number of things happening just so... people reacting in exactly the way predicted, timing working out perfectly, that sort of thing. They all do work out, but the uncertainty inherent in that planning made Mara look reckless, rather than bold and machiavellian.

Finally, and actually, probably most importantly, I was very disturbed by some of the attitudes displayed by both Mara and the narrative. There's Teani, Mara's husband's concubine, who's this horrid Evil Other Woman, irrational and hysterical, and whose portrayal is one of the most slut-shamey I've read in a while. There's the attitude to slaves and other 'unimportant' and 'dispensable' people. So the raiders killed the herder when they stole the cattle, but it was only a slave boy, so it's unimportant, not an issue. The slaves carrying Mara's litter happen to be in the room when something is casually mentioned that Mara wants kept a secret. They'll all have to be put to death. Mara is completely unaffected by her husband raping and beating the household's maids, which is referred to with no judgment as him having his "sport". These are all really minor, throwaway points. Mara doesn't think the lives of these people are important, and the narrative completely supports that. It's not just the writing that is dated.

And that is the main reason why this is not a good readalike for The Goblin Emperor. Mara lacks human decency in comparison to the hero of that book, the quite similarly-named Maia. I was happy to see her triumph at the start of the book, but by the end of it, I only wanted her to win because everyone else was worse. I don't think I'll be continuing with this series.



Marianne mcA,  22 August 2017 at 23:17  

The Goblin Emperor is a really hard book to match - your post made me ponder what book I'd mentally shelve it beside. Weirdly enough, the answer turned out to be Gilead - a book that I bought, then didn't read for the longest time, because I had somehow convinced myself that it was a book about a lake.

But, for me, the key thing about the Goblin Emperor is that it's a book about a truly good protagonist, which is hard to write, because goodness doesn't move a plot along - and Gilead also convinced as a portrait of goodness, though it is dissimilar in every other respect.

My other candidates were Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown - but I haven't reread it yet, so I'm not sure; Turner's Attolia books - for the court intrigue really, because while Eugenides is strongly moral, he's not good; and, thinking sideways, Bujold's take on Ivan - because he's another protagonist whose personal qualities won't move a plot along, and there's therefore something in the construction of the two books that is similar.

(My absolute comfort read at the moment is Balogh's Lord Carew's Bride: I think it's partly that there's so little conflict in the story - it must be about 96% just two people falling in love and being nice to each other, and I can tolerate the few pages where narrative tradition insists they suffer.)

Rosario 23 August 2017 at 06:06  

It is, really difficult. I'm intrigued by your suggestion of Gilead, particularly, and also by the Attolia books. I think there's something about those. Not sure I see it for Sorcerer to the Crown -maybe it's too comedic? Although Zacharias really is very decent.

My own closest match is probably The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers. There's something about the quiet, serious tone and the focus on people behaving decently and kindly.

And oh, I do adore Lord Carew's Bride!

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