I’m re-reading the fantasy trilogy that meant the most to me as a teenager, starting with Daughter of the Empire (1987) by Janny Wurts and Raymond E Feist. I remember it as being a devastatingly clever, female-centred political drama in a fantasy world. Let’s just see, shall we?
CHAPTER 1: LADY
In the temple of Lashima, the Lady, Goddess of the Inner Light, seventeen-year-old Mara prepares to renounce the world and join the Order of Lashima. She is giving up everything in service to her goddess, including her personal honour, and that of the great family Acoma into which she was born.
As the only daughter of the Lord of the Acoma, Mara was expected to marry and bear children, helping her family and the others of the Hadama Clan play their part in the Game of the Council, the political machinations in which all Tsurani nobles are expected to participate.
Instead she has chosen a life of inner light, of service and chastity.
But at the last moment, before the last few gongs are heard, there is a commotion, and a warrior breaks into the sanctity of the temple, calling for the Lady of the Acoma. Mara realises that her father and brother have been killed in the war against the barbarians, and her life is not going to be one of quiet service to the goddess after all.
Let the Game begin.
Mara is escorted away from the temple by Keyoke (battle-grizzled Force Commander of the Acoma), and the tall, taciturn Papewaio (First Strike Leader and the greatest warrior of the Acoma).
She cannot grieve publicly, because that would shame her family, and she is the Lady of a great house now. Public face is everything.
Accompanied by a bedraggled and wounded half-company of soldiers in Acoma green, Mara is escorted through the Holy City via litter, carried by slaves. Keyoke explains what happened in the battle against soldiers from the barbarian cities of Zûn and LaMut. The Warlord’s Subcommander, Tasaio of the Minwanabi, ordered Mara’s father Lord Sezu and brother Lanokota into a needless assault despite their troops being grossly outnumbered. As far as Keyoke is concerned, it was deliberate murder.
Tasaio is nephew to Lord Jingu of the Minwanabi, who has clearly arranged the Lord of the Acoma’s death. Despite their nominal alliance as members of the War Party, the blood feud between their families stretches back through the generations.
Almecho the Warlord has not condemned the Minwanabi, as he needs their military support for the ongoing war against the barbarians. Technically this particular battle was a standoff, not a loss, and so honour has been preserved… but Mara’s family are still dead, leaving her the only heir.
The only reason that Keyoke and Papewaio, the most loyal of the Acoma troops, and a small handful of soldiers of the family have survived, is because Lord Sezu deliberately sent them back, knowing he was likely to die.
Bitterly, Mara comes to terms with her position. She must build her weakened family’s status and gain further allies in order to (eventually) move against the Minwanabi, despite that family’s ever-growing power and strength.
On the long journey home, by barge to the city of Sulan Qu, and on by litter to her family estate, Mara thinks sadly of her father and of her beloved, cheeky brother.
The full extent of the disaster is not entirely clear until she reaches the estate and realizes that the majority of the surviving soldiers formed her escort. Almost two thousand soldiers of the Acoma died in battle with her father, and several hundred had previously been lost to the barbarians—Mara now has only thirty seven military retainers. Never mind the forces of the Minwanabi, at this point they could be taken out by an assault by bandits from the mountains.
The servants wait to greet Mara—and she learns that her father’s hadonra (estate manager) wasted away with grief at the news about her father. She is now served by a new hadonra, Jican.
Mara wants to rest, but her most trusted retainers—Keyoke, her former nurse Nacoya, and now Jican, insist she gets up to speed immediately. No one outside the Acoma knows yet that Mara was reclaimed before renouncing her family name—and two families in particular, the Anasati and the Minwanabi, will be keen to finish the house off once and for all. Unlike her brother, Mara was never trained to step into her father’s role, and her advisors are desperate for her to start work.
Overwhelmed, Mara breaks down completely. She insists on honouring the deaths of her father and brother before her new life begins. Her advisors place her father’s sword in her hand and send her to the sacred grove to mourn her loved ones.
As Mara performs a farewell ceremony in the natami glade, an assassin attacks her, strangling her with a garrote.
So, even before I get to the events of this chapter, let’s start with the cover. I don’t know about the rest of you, but the copy of Daughter of the Empire that I picked up in the early 90s had the cover I’ve seen most often associated with it: a beautiful garden with a high towered citadel just visible through the trees, and in the foreground: our heroine in her rumpled white robe, carrying her father’s sacred sword, beside a brazier. It’s actually a brilliant rendition of Mara’s story in Chapter 1.
Except for the fact that the Mara on the cover is blonde and white.
This cover infuriated me for years—not so much because of the whitewashing (at the age of 13-14, a few years before the internet impacted on my life, it never occurred to me that this was a racial/cultural issue) but because the woman on the cover didn’t look anything like Mara was described, and for a young reader, that’s unconscionable. I was similarly dismayed, I recall, about the depiction of Ce’Nedra on the cover of David Eddings’ Magician’s Gambit as being about three foot taller than the character was supposed to be.
Looking at it now, all I can do is shake my head. Oh, 80s publishers. I am judging you right now. (I note that many of the later rereleases of the books have corrected this problem with new art.)
As for the story itself—there’s a trope known as Towering which I picked up from reading about romance fiction. It refers to the tarot card “The Tower” and means a protagonist has their life completely destroyed or disassembled at the beginning of the story. This is clearly what’s happening to Mara. We meet her on the worst day on her life—it’s one thing to step away from your family in order to serve a Goddess, and quite another to have it ripped away from you.
We also learn a lot about the world of the Tsurani from Mara’s experience, and how she deals with it—not only the layered politics that guide her culture’s way of life, but most importantly the social expectations of how a lady of her status is expected to meet death and disaster.
It’s clear right from the start that this is not your traditional epic fantasy series. Mara’s long, emotionally restrained journey from the temple back to her family estate is not only deeply symbolic, but also gives us the opportunity to glimpse, tourist-style, the world where we’re going to be spending a lot of time. Asian influences blend with science fictional detail to make it clear that everything here is different to the mock-European-medieval default that is so common in fantasy settings.
Mara’s is a world of silk and spices and jomach fruit, but also of the six legged needra, and other odd creatures.
There’s also, very early in the story, an undertone that establishes that for all that Mara is our protagonist and therefore the character we’re most likely to sympathise with, there’s a narrative of privilege going on here. Mara is miserable, bereft and about to do some of the hardest work of her life. But when she observes the naked slaves in the marketplace, it’s with a memory of how she used to blush while looking at them as objects of sexual curiosity. She takes for granted that they are not allowed to wear clothes, and never thinks to challenge their status as non-people.
I am trying hard not to look too far ahead, especially if people are reading this for the first time, but the point of a re-read is at least partially to flag new perspectives that come from returning to a book again – so I will say that I know the slave thing is going to be addressed at some point, as something Mara seriously needs to think about. But I don’t remember to what extent it’s going to be resolved!
Daughter of the Empire is an immersive fantasy, told largely (though I think I remember not exclusively) through Mara’s eyes, and already we are noticing the things that she observes without challenging: her world is based on slavery, prostitution is an acknowledged and licensed profession, poor people are toiling in the fields. On the worst day of her life, with “everything” lost, she is still carried by slaves in a litter decorated with silk bearing her family’s crest. She notes that many women will be mourning their own men, with two thousand of the Acoma soldiers lost, and yet she is still caught up in her own tragedy.
Of course she is. She’s seventeen years old.
But it’s important to note that as readers, we will not be viewing the world and culture of the Tsurani through an observer, but an insider. Already, this first chapter is heavily layered with assumed knowledge. Mara is well aware of the luxuries and protection a woman of her family would normally be entitled to, and gave them up once to evade the restrictions usually placed upon women in her culture—but the avenue of religious escape is no longer open to her. Silken litter or no silken litter, she has been abandoned without the education and political tools she needs to survive, purely because she is a woman. She’s going to have to catch up fast.
So far, so good. I’m really impressed with how much Feist and Wurts have packed in here, drip feeding so many telling details to the reader when relevant, and yet how much this chapter has time to breathe and show us the scenery along the way.
A NOTE ABOUT BARBARIANS: Those of you who have read Raymond E Feist’s Magician trilogy, and probably many who have not, will be aware that the “barbarians” that the Tsurani are fighting thanks to the rift between worlds are from Midkemia, the setting of those books. I’m not going to review them here, because I found them quite dull. I always read and re-read the Empire trilogy independent of Pug and his adventures, and plan to do exactly that this time around. Believe me, the series stands alone. If anyone wants to comment on the posts from the perspective of a more avid reader of the Midkemia-set novels, I’ll be keen to hear what you have to add! I’m sure that I’m missing a layer or two of complexity but on the other hand, those novels don’t have Mara in them, so I’m okay with my decision.
Obviously, I’m on Team Tsurani in this war. And, of course, Team Acoma.
For those who haven’t read Magician and its sequels, honestly, just imagine white beardy people with swords whenever the text mentions Midkemians, and you’ll be fine.
Tansy Rayner Roberts is the fantasy author of the Creature Court trilogy and one of the three voices of the Hugo-nominated Galactic Suburbia podcast. She has a PhD in Classics, which she drew upon for her short story collection “Love and Romanpunk.” She also writes crime fiction as Livia Day. Come and find her on Twitter!