May 19 2014 9:00am

Rereading The Empire Trilogy: Daughter of the Empire, Part 1

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?



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.



Daughter of the Empire Raymond Feist Janny WurtsSo, 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!

1. Brian_E
Some of the Tsurani culture is provided in Magician:Master, from Pug/Milamber's perspective. You mostly get a general idea of the houses, the great game and the parties that play it, and the general Tsurani philosophies.

I've never read the DotE series (but always wanted to, because later books of the Riftwar saga refer back to what Mara does in these books)
Merchanter Pride
2. MerchanterPride
Well this is exciting. I actually missed most of the dreck 80s Extruded Fantasy Product when it was happening, I've read a lot of it in retrospect, which is an unusual experience as these books are really ultimately young adult books, even if the writers though they were writing for adults. (I did read the Magician books out of some masochistic compulsion all through my kid days.)

But regardless I have a kind of invented nostalgia for fantasy of this period, all of it so burdened by its unexamined narrative tropes and rife with amazing race/sex/class issues; it's all so uncomplicated and sort of delightful as much as it is also frustrating? Like I read the Belgariad when I was 27, and that was awesome. I actually just read the Empire trilogy last year for the first time, on a recommendation regarding books with labyrinthine politics, and I was really satisfied. It's important to acknowledge how completely awful the writing is, just clunky and leaden as the day is long. But really, really fun romps. This will be a delight to follow!
3. alreadymadwithMara
My mother, who I don't believe had ever picked up a fantasy novel before in her life, fell in love with Mara of the Acoma. The one I picked up had this cover. I didn't really pick it up until a few years ago, but it was a really good read. Different from other fantasy novels of that always seemed to focus on being either the sword, or the sorcery, and rarely ever the damsel in distress that does not have a knight in shining armor and will have to work her own way through.
Mieneke van der Salm
4. Mieneke
The moment Mara reaches home and realises just how few soldiers are left to her and how alone she is, always breaks my heart for her, because she is only seventeen and even if that was old enough to renounce the world forever for the cloistered life, it's still really young to be in that position.

I also found it interesting that so many of my favourite characters next to Mara from this series (Keyoke, Papewaio, Nacoya) were here in the first chapter. They made a deep impression.

I agree about the privileged viewpoint. It was something that stood out this last reread to me as well. But it's also one of the things I love about this series, that this privileged viewpoint and Mara's growing awareness of it drives so much of the narrative.
Alice Arneson
5. Wetlandernw
Well, this should be interesting. I loved the Riftwar Saga, and read this trilogy because it was a spin-off of that. I never liked this one as well, so I've only read it a couple of times, as opposed to (at least) 4-5 times for the Riftwar. And it's been a long time since I read either one. It will be interesting to reread it from a few years' change in perspective!
6. alreadymadwithAcoma
Indeed you can feel her heart break at how her house has been laid so low. Here she is faced with a daunting task for which she is utterly unprepared... and she has been left with so little to do it with.

Wetlandernw! I see you!
Sam Mickel
7. Samadai
I have only read these books once, after they first came out. Like Wetlandernw, I enjoyed the Riftwar saga much more. I liked these books, but just never gave them a reread, looking forward to it.
Estara Swanberg
8. Estara
Same here, Tansy. These are the only books of Feist's I can still reread. Interestingly enough I still quite enjoy various David Eddings books - these days I expect that to be the case because his wife had some influence on the portrayal of women - although X'Nedra I could have done without at the time, even with the later competence I'm just not into drama queens.

Feist... I tried rereading my favourites, and at the time I loved the computer rpgs that were made out of the series Betrayal at Krondor et al, but I can't reread them and I no longer buy any of his Rift books. I really don't like how he writes female characters.

On the plus side, this trilogy introduced me to Janny Wurts and in short order to her own work - and art ^^.
9. TansyRR
@alreadymadwith Mara That cover makes me laugh! It's just so 80's. The silly headdress and oh, that poor warrior in the corner with his giant feathers. I looked at it when we were deciding which covers to present with this re-read as the banner, and I just - couldn't -
Sam Mickel
10. Samadai
AlreadyMad, That is the cover on my copy of the book
Jason Long
11. sturmvogel
I loved this series; I bought the first volume in hardback as a spinoff from the Riftwar, but bought the sequels for their own quality. Mara is an amazing character with an incredible character arc.
12. alreadymadwithTsurani
TansyRR @9
Strangely enough, the armor matches my internal vision of what Tsurani armor would look like. The same image I've had since first reading the Magician trilogy twenty years ago. Though now that I think on it, I'm not so sure about the feathers.
13. Betsy
As a teenager I read all of the Midkemia/Tsurani books that had been published at the time (up to about Talon of the Silver Fox, I think). I enjoyed most of them the first time through, though I did get a bit over it towards the end. But the Empire Trilogy has always been my stand-out favourite of the lot. I've never managed to re-read all of the other ones, though I have re-read most of them once at one time or another, but I've re-read the Empire Trilogy several times. So much more depth in every aspect - world, plot, and especially character! Maybe I'm due another re-read...

I never read very many of Janny Wurts' other books. I love To Ride Hell's Chasm, but haven't really read any of her series. I should do that.

It's also interesting that people are discussing The Belgariad alongside these books. I read that at about the same time, and they were my first two not-in-the-children's-section epic fantasy experiences (other than LoTR), I guess this is a common experience? I find The Belgariad easier to re-read than the Midkemia books as it's lighter and more fun, though there's a lot of cringing while I read it.
Alice Arneson
14. Wetlandernw
@alreadymad and Samadai - ::waves enthusiastically:: Hi, guys! Good to see you! :D What kind of damage fun shall we get up to here? It's rather a different world than the one where we first met...
J. Akimatsu
15. DesertLorelei
I've never read this series--I missed out on a LOT of awesome fantasy novels while I was young and foolish and obsessed with science fiction--but just this initial post is enough to let me know that I need to read this book ASAP. Why aren't there any 24-hour libraries??
Gary Singer
16. AhoyMatey
Keyoke is one of the most awesome characters ever. Until Lujan.
Tricia Irish
17. Tektonica
Like Wetlander and Samadai I also enjoyed the Riftwar Saga quite a least most of it. I never read these! So I'm looking forward to this!
**waves hello to fellow WoT posters**
Clay Blankenship
18. snoweel
Whoa, I have never even seen that green cover. I had the one that Alreadymadwithmara posted, which I believe is art by Janny Wurts herself.
Do we get a description of skin/hair color? I picture everyone as Japanese since Japanese history is clearly a major inspiration. I believe some elements of Mesoamerican/Aztec/southwestern (Pueblo) Native American culture are present as well, including many names (e.g. Acoma, Zacatecas) and I guess the feathery clothing. (I remember this being discussed by Raymond Feist on an email list he had way back in the early/mid 90's.)
Tabby Alleman
19. Tabbyfl55
Yeah the Riftwar + Empire, Belgariad, Thomas Covenant, and the inevitable Piers Anthony were all lumped together into my high school years. They were pretty much the staple of my fantasy-reading friends at the time as well.
Lianne Burwell
20. LKBurwell
That cover is... Ew. My copies are all with the Don Maitz covers. Very oriental. Mind you, he was married to Janny Wurtz, so messing up the covers would have been bad.

(and I even have the third book as a signed ARC, based on a mail the the POF from the first two in paperback and you got the ARC with a signed plate of the third)
Iain Scott
21. iopgod
I think I only read Feist due to the Empire series... and I never liked the Magician etc. (EFP, even if less awful than some) as much as this series. I always thought that the bits of this series which worked least well for me were the bits where there is direct interaction with the previously established Feistian cannon.
22. Eugene R.
TansyRR (@9): You may blame the feathered warrior on M.A.R. Barker, whose Tekumel world setting, especially its Tsolyani Empire, is a main inspiration for Feist and Wurts. Though, actually, a "real" Tsolyani warrior's feathers would be plumed (more Polynesian style than loose-feathered Mesoamerican). The elaborately curved and layered armor is pretty close to the source. Barker was a linguist working on south-east Asian languages and was inspired by their cultures to create (or expand upon his youthful imaginings) a socially stratified, highly politicized, religiously complex fantasy world.

snoweel (@18) and LKBurwell (@20): The "feathered warrior" covers are all listed on the collaborative Maitz/Wurts Web site. Fun fact: Ms. Wurts has posed as Captain Morgan (of Spiced Rum fame) when Mr. Maitz needed a model to fit the pirate captain costume he had rented for reference.
23. alreadymadwithdarkhair
snoweel @18
As I understand it, the climate was always described as tropical. So everybody was tanned with predominantly dark hair. Even Pug got a tan during his time there.
24. Booksnhorses
For some reason although I read these at the time they came out, I didn't own my own copies but I found the first two in the covers shown here a few months ago (that other cover makes me sing 'her name was Lola, she was a showgirl'!). At the time it took me a while to realise that the cover was wrong which I blame on my very monocultural background and youth- I didn't realise that Ged et al were poc until book 2 with the white barbarians - but I subconsciously enjoyed having a female orientated series.

I enjoyed Magician but each book got less interesting, whereas I remember really enjoying this series; looking forward to this re-read. I have read some other Janny Wurts books but her style brings out the same reaction as nails down a blackboard in my head.
25. DianaAcomaFan
Speaking of covers, take a look at these ones by Geoff Taylor:
Servant (2)
Mistress (I'm not as over-the-mo0n about this one)

They were apparently used on some limited-edition versions in Great Britain - they get all the good covers!
Larry Lennhoff
26. llennhoff
As someone who as been doing FRP since the mid 70s I very much enjoyed the whole Tekumel invades Greyhawk vibe of the early Feists and the Daughter of the Empire.

I very much liked the Empire books because of the fact that the viewpoint character is a member of the culture. I like strong female characters, and I like settings that aren't based on a western culture, and the Empire series supplies both in abundance. I also liked that when Mara is harsh in ways that make sense in her cultural context, the text doesn't point this out. Early on in the first book she condemns a dozen or so slaves to death to preserve a secret. She doesn't think about swearing them to silence or shipping them far away - slaves are without honor and live or die at the whim (or need) of their owner, so she orders it and it is done off screen and someone just skimming might not even realize how awful what she has just done is.

For those who like Kelwan I'd like to recommend the two MAR Barker Tekumel books Man of Gold and Flamesong . Like the Empire series they give an immersive viewpoint into a decidely non-western culture. Unlike the Daughter series the protaganist never really steps outside the limits of the culture, which to my mind makes it even more interesting.
27. Widdershins
This was the first Fantasy I read that felt like it was for grown-ups.
28. ShannonS
I read Feist's "Riftwar" saga way back when and enjoyed it thoroughly at the time. I picked up Daughter of the Empire simply because it was connected, but would re-read it on occasion, picking up a little more each time. At first I didn't get into Servant and only read Mistress once, preferring the "Riftwar" books. But over the years I grew to appreciate the "Empire" books more and just how successful they were in creating a really alien culture in a fantasy setting. I still enjoy parts of the "Riftwar" books, but can definitely appreciate the broader diversity of characters and more in-depth exploration of female characters in "Empire".
29. ExcitedAboutThisRe-read
Wow, I love these books!
As a kid, I really enjoyed the Feist Riftwar books. I found it harder to connect with the Empire trilogy.

As an adult... I enjoy the Empire trilogy tonnes more! I agree that Feist doesn't write female characters well. The high fantasy stuff is fine, but the later Riftwar novels really seem churned out, and continuity gaffes are increasingly frequent and irritating. Characters become very lame too. Magician is great and most of the other early novels were ok. Serpentwar was great (except female characters). Most of the others are pretty average.

Empire trilogy was never like that. It's intricate, well thought through, with interesting themes, character development and incredibly compelling.

I agree with an earlier poster that the Riftwar tie-ins are a bit contrived (especially in Mistress), but I have to admit finding it cool when I was a kid. Just like superhero cross-overs are automatically cool if you're 10 I suppose, no matter how poorly executed.
30. Queen MyrdemInggala
I first read Daughter of the Empire, out of all the Feist and Wurts books. That interested me so I bought and read the rest of the trilogy, then followed up with reading some more of Feist's books - the Riftwar trilogy, then some of Wurts' books - the Curse of the Mistwraith series, though I couldn't get some of the later ones.

As far as I'm concerned, the Empire trilogy made sense. I enjoyed the Riftwar trilogy, and some parts of the Mistwraith series, but I gritted my teeth all the way through The King's Buccaneer - so unrelated to anything except the post-Elizabethan mythology of British pirates fighting the Spaniards on the Spanish Main, with no relation to economic or financial reasons whatever. And Novindus ... curled my toes.

A friend of mine - quite a fan of Feist's - said he had overextended his original good idea and his later books weren't worth reading.
Ryan Reich
31. ryanreich
This was also my favorite Feist-universe series as a teenager. I can't put my finger on what particular aspect made it so great, but it has great color and subtlety. Also, I love that you unflinchingly bash the Magician books; I liked the first one (i.e. two) a lot, and as the series wore on it just wore on. The followup series are not worth reading at all, which is why I was so glad to discover this one.
Bruce Wilson
32. Aesculapius
I first read Magician as a stand-alone, single-volume novel back in the mid-80s and loved it! Admittedly, I was in my mid-teens at the time but it was new fantasy and, for me, it really just worked. The first trilogy was OK and I definitely enjoyed reading Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon but they never quite matched Magician as a story on its own. After that, however, it all just spiralled downhill and I rapidly lost interest.

The Empire Trilogy, however, has a place as a very fond memory. I thought it both a brave move and a a fantastic idea to spin-off a completely different series that looked at the original "enemy" culture from that first novel. Sure, we had Pug's experiences as Milamber in Magician but this was from the *inside* -- and much more powerful because of it.

I first read these in the very early 90s, in my first year or so at university. I loved the loud, almost raucous visual imagery and the bright coulours of this culture that was part feudal Japan and part indigenous central American. Aztec ninjas and samurai crossed with Imperial politics that would have done Rome, Byzantium or Kyoto proud -- what's not to like?!

Mara was also a first for me as a female lead in a fantasy series (not counting Mists of Avalon...) and I was intrigued to see how she was going to make everything work with the tattered remnants of her house in a culture that was hostile to her on SO many levels!

I remember the series of covers that Tansy referenced, with the title font that clearly linked the series to my copy of Magician. I also like the look of this but I agree that the portrayal of Mara was jarringly wrong. The Maitz covers I saw much later (I had no idea of his relationship to Janny Wurts!) and, although some things felt slightly "off" compared to the mental picture my own imagination had already created, I could immediately see exactly what was intended in those illustrations of the characters and, to be honest, the style of the Tsurani armour and the inclusion of the (oft-mentioned in the text!) officers' plumes really isn't so far from the descriptions in the books or what I saw in my head!

I haven't re-read these for absolutely years now (maybe even a couple of decades -- ouch!) but I'm definitely looking forward to this. I bought the trilogy for my kindle App about six months back but never got around to starting. Now is definitely a good time! Read on...!! :o)
33. gadget
I first read Magician as a stand-alone, single-volume novel back in the
mid-80s and loved it! Admittedly, I was in my mid-teens at the time but
it was new fantasy and, for me, it really just worked. The first trilogy
was OK and I definitely enjoyed reading Silverthorn and A Darkness at
Sethanon but they never quite matched Magician as a story on its own.
After that, however, it all just spiralled downhill and I rapidly lost interest.
This is almost my experience verbatim, except I read Magician in the original two volume set. I also remember finding Daughter, Servant etc. and reading them as part of the same story. I was much surprised by the different context and writing at the time.
34. Dharma
Terrific review! This is my most favorite character from all of my reading. Mara moved me because she was so different from me, and so wise at such a young age. She was my totem mentor in difficult times in my life.

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