Book Review: Daughter of the Empire

Daughter of the Empire is the first book in a three-book collaboration between Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts.  The book's set in the Kelewan Empire, the parallel-universe antagonist from Feist's Rift War novels.  No knowledge of Feist's other works are necessary to understand Daughter; I went in knowing nothing of the Rift War series beyond the title.  The gist of the larger plot is that the Kelewan Empire exists in one universe, Midkemia in another, and there's a magical rift between the two.  Kelewan is a synthesis of various Asian cultures and empires, while Midkemia, I get the impression, is analagous to medieval Europe.  Kelewan is invading Midkemia through the rift, and the war has apparently gone on for some time.

But the war is just distant background.  Daughter is a novel of politics.  The book begins with a betrayal that kills the lord of the ancient Acoma clan, along with its sole male heir.  Rulership passes to Mara, the dead lord's daughter, who must establish control of the clan, rebuild its strength, forge alliances to ensure its continued survival, and exact revenge against the enemies of the Acoma.  The focus of the book is on relatively small-scale conflicts between clans and vassals.  There are a few armed skirmishes in the book, but for the most part Mara's victories are won in drawing rooms and reception halls. 

Feist and Wurts handle Mara's sex skillfully.  They don't take any easy outs by, for instance, making the Kelewan Empire tolerant of female rulership; Kelewan is as patriarchal as its real-world analogues in the Middle Ages.  Mara is placed in a position of simultaneous dominance and submission.  She rules her clan absolutely, and her fellow rulers make superficial gestures of respect.  Yet there is an undercurrent of bemusement.  People play along because tradition requires them to, but nobody considers her a serious threat. 

There's an interesting reversal mid-way through the book, when Mara marries and loses control her her household.  Even with an incompetent husband, her powerlessness is absolute, and it is nearly a year before she can wrest even a modicum of control over the Acoma back from him, and then only by his grudging concession.  It's interesting to contrast Mara before and after the marriage; she goes from being a shrewd and competent leader, managing the house with skill and intelligence, to essentially not a human being any longer.  She no longer has even the power to manage her own life, let alone her house. 

The book is a fun novel of politics in its own right, and provides interesting insights into female rulership, a topic oft neglected or glossed over in fantasy novels. 

At the same time, it has a few failings.  The writing is serviceable, but often repetitive.  In the space of a single chapter you will be told a dozen times that "the fate of the entire Acoma clan rested on (the events of the next few hours/what would happen beyond that gate/what would transpire in the dooryard)."  It's also a little irksome how often we hear about all the emotions the characters aren't showing.  The writing works for the most part, but there are those few ticks that irritate.

More substantively, the plot is a tad episodic.  Within a few chapters a formula is established: A problem arises that requires shrewd negotiation, Mara goes to some hostile lord/bandit/queen, Mara successfully tricks the rival into doing what she wishes, Mara returns triumphant, ready for her nxt advanture.  This changes with the marriage, which forms the most interesting part of the book, but the rest gets a bit monotonous as the format keeps getting repeated.

Mara also tends a bit to the Mary Sue-ish for my taste.  She seems just a little too clever and too perfect.  This isn't to say there aren't unexpected twists that redound to her disadvantage, but generally Mara always makes the best choice in any given situation, and Mara always wins.  After a while, this gets boring.

Nonetheless, it's a lot of fun overall.  The political machinations are interesting and the way that the various parties exploit the ancient forms is subtle and devious.  The book's entertaining throughout, and I would recommend it.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on May 26, 2006 9:41 PM.

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