May 19 2014 9:00am

Rereading the Empire Trilogy: An Introduction

Rereading the Empire Trilogy

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)

[It starts right here, right now!]

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.

1. megaduck
Rereading the Empire series? YES!

One of my favorite series with one of my favorite heroines of all time.
2. Gregor Lewis
Speaking of Feasts for Crows, the Empire Series was a smorgasboard of delicacy I scavenged after the 'formula' of the Midkemia novels lost it's meaning in bland repetition.

I haven't re-read the books since the mid 90's either. Really looking forward to following your journey.

Here's hoping they hold up!


P.S - Ahhh! Cheysuli ... How long has it been since I had that word ringing in my ears as I devoured the first six books of that series in a matter of weeks.

Book 7 - Flight of the Raven, was the first book I ever ordered direct from the U.S, because I couldn't wait for 'Minotaur Books' regular shipment and paid extra for them to get my copy special ...
... The memories - I remember desperately wanting a wolf like Storr. A wise lir was a true companion for this introvert ...

I'm getting sidetracked, but now that you've reminded me, like the fat little piss-ant I was in high-school, I WANT the lollipop of a Cheysuli Re-read too!


And breathe ... One gifthorse at a time, I guess, but...

Maybe someday, Maesters of ? Please?
Dan Guy
3. danguyf
I re-read the Empire trilogy every two or three years, and have since my mid-teens. Twenty years later they still hold up for me.

Conversely, last year I re-read the first two Magician books for the first time since my teens and was rather disappointed.
Beth S.
4. molokini
Every week or so, I dutifully click the "I'd like to read this book on Kindle" link for each of the novels in this trilogy. (Sigh...)
Mieneke van der Salm
5. Mieneke
As I said on Twitter: YAY!! I just reread them last year and they do age well, in my opinion. I look forward to the experience of a group read and to seeing what you make of them after twenty years away!
Kevin Svendsen
6. Vine34
I loved these books during my teen years, and I think they will hold up fairly well (certainly better than Eddings does). I also dearly wish they would be available as ebooks, though I suspect that they haven't because of complicate rights issues. Two authors, published in the late 80's, with probably no digital distribution rights built into the original contract....recipe for it never happening.

As to the author's individual works, I enjoyed Feist's work for what it was, and he had a gift for some really impressive set pieces that would look amazing filmed. I may have to go back now and give the Riftwar books a re-read, just to see how they've aged.

With Wurtz, I was really excited a few months ago to discover that she'd written a nice big fantasy series (The Wars of Light and Shadow), but when I tried them, I bounced off really really hard. I'm not entirely sure why, but part of it was that I never found a sense of place in the books. The entire first third felt like a prologue.
Alice Arneson
7. Wetlandernw
I'd read and enjoyed Wurts's Cycle of Fire trilogy, so when I saw a collaboration between Feist (whose Riftwar Saga books I really enjoyed) and Wurts I was pretty excited. I wouldn't say I was disappointed, but I certainly never enjoyed the Empire trilogy as much as I did the other two mentioned. We'll see; maybe it will improve with a couple of decades' life experience. Or... maybe not. :)
8. Sleo
I love this series, but I also love Wurts' other books. Her best, the Wars of Light and Shadow series, are not something that readers of YA or coming of age fantasies would enjoy, though. Like the Empire series, it's rich and complex, with layers of underlying meaning.

It hardly seems enticing to diss her other books before talking about this series. Hope people read it in spite of your unenthusiastic intro!
9. TansyRR
Hi all!

Glad to hear there are some keen Empire-readers along for the ride.

Sleo, I certainly didn't intend to "diss" Janny Wurts' other books - by "bounced off them" I was definitely trying to make it about me the (former teenage) reader rather than the author herself. I was a voracious reader as a teen but also very impatient, hurling books to the wayside if I didn't love them straight away.

I often felt that I should make more of an effort with Wurts' other books considering how much I LOVED Empire, (and because I have often gone out of my way to read female-authored fantasy) but I think my disinterest in the other Midkemia books fed into that. I basically assumed that it was together that the authors were magic.

Once this re-read is done, I'll definitely give her other works a go - I'd be glad to hear specific recommendations as to what I should try.
10. TansyRR
The message I'm taking from the comment thread so far is... that's ONE vote for a Cheysuli re-read!
Drew Holton
11. Dholton
Two votes for Cheysuli reread! Or Tiger & Del, whichever. Although, I hadn't known a new one came out last fall, and haven't had a chance to read it yet.
12. Sleo
Ah, Tansy, sorry if I misunderstood. I would suggest you try one of her standalones, Master of Whitestorm or To Ride Hell's Chasm before diving into the longer and more in depth series, which starts with Curse of the Mistwraith.

Whitestorm is coming out in audio if you're interested, as is Daughter of Empire. I believe Whitestorm is May 27; not sure about Daughter.
13. Katharine (thiefofcamorr)
(Psssst, it's Katharine Kerr, not Katherine ;D)

I'm going to try jump in on this! I devoured the first book, but got distracted and fell off somewhere along the middle of the second. And I'd love to finish the series finally.
Lloyd Viente
14. lloydv
I'd just finished re-reading almost all (I think I just lack Jimmy & the Crawler) of Feist's rift novels last week, I'd love to read what you have to write about this particular trilogy co-written with Wurst.
Stefan Raets
15. Stefan
@9 Tansy -- I definitely recommend To Ride Hell's Chasm, which is maybe my single favorite standalone fantasy novel ever. Her Wars of Light and Shadow series is also brilliant.
16. TansyRR
Sorry, Katharine!

@Sleo I'm really excited about the audio versions! Do you know who's reading them? I love audio books but am very picky about readers.

Thanks for the Wurtz recommendations, everyone!
17. Omar J. Sakr
This is one of the best fantasy series ever, in my estimation. It's truly wonderful, utterly absorbing, smart, tense, beautiful writing. And with such an excellent heroine as its lead, how can it not be? I love it so very much.

Janny Wurts is an excellent writer - I love her Wars of Light and Shadow series, it's one of the more underrated epic fantasy series out there. Though I found some of her literary techniques a little trying during a recent re-read, there's still a whole lot of power and majesty in that world. From all the things you listed as what you want in epic fantasy, I can tell you that particular series definitely hits all those marks. And then some.

But if you want a gentler first step, definitely try her standalone To Ride Hell's Chasm. To write a great standalone fantasy novel is, in my estimation, one of the most difficult feats to achieve in genre fiction. You have to introduce us not just to your characters and your story, but also to this new world, its cultural, political and magical practices, all without it being overwhelming - or worse, boring, and overlong - in the span of a single book. Janny manages to do all that with singular ease, while also establishing a unique magic system that I'm still hoping she'll return to!

And somehow, it's not even that long!
18. Omar J. Sakr
Wait, wait, I just grabbed it off my shelf -- it's 687 pages. It just happens to be a deceptively small book. Next to the other tomes on my shelf, I swear I'd have thought it only around 400.

Anyway, the rest of what I said still holds up :P
19. Sleo
@Tansy - I, too, am picky about readers. Here is a list of Wurts' audiobooks and narrators. At least so far!
Master of Whitestorm - Simon Prebble
Sorcerer's Legacy - Emily Gray
Empire series - Tania Roduigues
Cycle of Fire - David Thorpe
Gary Singer
20. AhoyMatey
I loved the Magician books, and the Empire series was awesome. Reread it many times. I enjoyed Cycle of Fire, but gave up on Wurt's epic fantasy series. Just didn't do it for me.

And yeah, The Seeres of Kell felt like it took forever. WoT and ASOIF taught me better...
Clay Blankenship
21. snoweel
Looking forward to this. I was a big fan of these back in high school.
22. AO
I really loved this trilogy when I read it for the first time just a few years ago. Sadly, I find that neither authors' standalone work is nearly so good as this collaboration. On their own, I feel that each aurthor is too simplistic for my tastes, but together they were able to combine to create something that is far more than the sum of it's parts. Truly an underrated gem and it's great to see it garner more exposure here.

"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?"

Have you read Michelle West's "Sun Sword" and "House War" series? Not an abundance of frocks, and little in the way of kissing, but everything else is present in abundance. The largest number, the strongest, the most diverse, women that I have ever read in any fantasy series, the greatest and most insightful characterization writer that Ive ever read. Rich world-building, five different cultures from the very patriarchal of Asian/Middle Eastern influenced to the matriarchal, several religions woven throughly through the fabrics of their societies, a wealth of politics and scheming and cultural differences with the highest stakes possible. I still can't do the writer nearly the justice that she deserves, but if these are things that you're looking for, then imho you can't do better than Michelle Sagara West.
23. TansyRR
@AO Thanks for the rec! I haven't read Michelle Sagara West before, but that sounds like some great reasons to do so.
Kerry Dustin
24. rocalisa
Another vote for a Cheysuli reread after this one.

There are ebooks available in some regions (I don't know exactly which) as I was able to buy Daughter of the Empire for Kindle. I live in New Zealand.

Now I just need to find a moment to read the first chapter and I can read the next post.
25. Blackcat
So awesome! The Empire trilogy has been one of my favourites since I discovered it in my teens, and I reread it every year or so. Because I found it first it was actually the standard that I measured Feist's Riftwar books by. Didn't get into them back then, recently gave it another shot and enjoyed them better but still don't see them being a regular re-read.

But yes, I spent a large part of my adolescence wanting to be Mara, and to hug Arakasi.
Grainne McGuire
26. helen79
These books appear to be available on kindle on both the UK and US Amazons. UK Daughter of the Empire came out in September 2012. I haven't checked any other Amazon locations.
29. Aura Moreno
Please cone out with a part 8 already! I'm reading for the first time and I've enjoyed consuming the parts, digesting them for value, then reading what you valued of them.
Alissa ...
30. Alissa
Thank you for this introduction! I'm eager to try this trilogy, I've discovered Janny Wurts works through To Ride Hell's Chasm (standalone, vividly recommended) and she has redefined my definition of adult epic fantasy, so I'm very curious to read Feist/Wurts' take on epic fantasy aimed at a younger audience. I'll be sure to follow the reread :)
I feel my age anyway, when I was a teen, we conversed about boy bands and the big bother tv show...

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