When I was thirteen years old, I didn’t exactly discover epic fantasy on my own. I acquired it as a social defence mechanism. I came home to Australia after half a year in the UK to find that my friends had discovered epic fantasy in my absence, and I was going to have to catch up in a hurry in order to make sense of their conversations.
Seriously, they weren’t talking about anything else.
So in I leapt. By the time my fourteenth birthday came around, I was well and truly hooked—not only immersed in this genre of swords and thieves and magic and really fat books, but I was now planning and writing my own ten-book epic series featuring a pair of twins, a prophecy, a rogue, a witch, a traitor…
Ahem. We all have to start somewhere.
In between the long-awaited releases of the latter books in David (not yet “and Leigh”) Eddings’ series The Mallorean (I remember how the wait for The Seeress of Kell felt like the most terrible, unfair thing in the world—George RR Martin fans are welcome to scoff at how easy we Eddings fans had it in the early 90s, with a book or two coming out every year), we discovered many, many other authors, some that we all shared delight in, and others that only one or two of our group could love.
I devoured the Dragonlance books. I managed to miss the majority of the works by Mercedes Lackey, the Pern and Darkover novels, and Katherine Kerr, all of which I regret now that I didn’t read 20 years ago. But I did absorb the works of Sheri S Tepper, Terry Pratchett, Robin McKinley, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough and Tamora Pierce. The Mists of Avalon and its Trojan counterpart The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley lodged themselves thoroughly in my heart forever. Jennifer Roberson was one of my touchstone authors, and it makes me sad how little I hear now about her Cheysuli and Del & Tiger novels, because they were hugely important to me at the time.
I made an earnest go of The Lord of the Rings but had to stop when a friend discovered I hadn’t read The Hobbit first, and stole The Two Towers from me until I did it “properly,” so I gave up on Tolkien altogether until the movies came out a decade later. (Now we are both grownups with geeky children, I take great pleasure in teasing her about how my daughter came to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings via Lego.)
I’m going to come out right now and say that Raymond E Feist’s Magician series left me entirely cold, and while I really wanted to like the novels of Janny Wurts, I bounced off the ones I tried. But the Empire trilogy they wrote together, set on the other side of the “Rift” that broke a hole in Feist’s Magician universe, was something special.
Daughter of the Empire. Servant of the Empire. Mistress of the Empire.
Even now, when I’m asked about my fictional influences, I always come back to the Empire trilogy. If I dig around in my own personal ideas about what fantasy fiction—and epic fantasy in particular—should be doing, then so many of them lead back to this specific trilogy.
What do I want in a good fantasy book? Court politics and social interactions based around houses and cities. Powerful women and devious men. Drama and action with emotional ramifications. Frocks. Kissing. Swords. An intense impression of history in the world-building. Magic and religion that is embedded in society rather than balancing prettily on the top of it. Alien culture, and culture clashes. Assassins. Loyalty. High stakes. Wit. Diplomacy. Battles and bloodshed. Hard choices, uncomfortable compromises. Suffering. Personal growth. Tasty imaginary food. Did I mention frocks?
Feist and Wurts taught me that these are the things that I want to find—which means I can blame them for how often I’ve been disappointed in other epic fantasy series over the years, yes?
I must have read this series over and over during my teen years, but here’s the kicker—I haven’t reread it in nearly two decades. And I don’t know if it holds up. (Hold me, this could take a turn towards tragedy pretty fast.) The Empire trilogy is still one of my go-to recommendations for the genre, but I don’t know if that’s true any more.
I want it to be true. I want it to be as good as I remember. I want it to be as feminist and as crunchy and as challenging as I thought it was back when I didn’t know anything about anything. It’s a coming of age story of a young woman who gains power in a sexist society, right? It has maternal themes (something I am really interested in now but couldn’t care less about at 15), and is based on a culture other than cod-medieval Europe, so that’s good too, right? (Unless it turns out, twenty years later, to be more racist than I thought it was. Now I’m really scared.)
They say you should never meet your heroes. I suspect that the same holds true for reading beloved old books. But—I want to know. More than that—I really do look forward to unpacking quite what it was about this particular trilogy that has had such a hold on me, and my expectations of the epic fantasy genre, for so very long.
Join me. It’s going to be awesome.
(I really hope it’s awesome)
Tansy Rayner Roberts is the author of The Creature Court trilogy, Love and Romanpunk, and Ink Black Magic, among other fantasy novels. She won the Hugo for Best Fan Writer in 2013, and podcasts with Galactic Suburbia and Verity. Find her at her website or on Twitter as @tansyrr.