Here we go again! Welcome to the Servant of the Empire Reread.
The good news for those of you who remember the Great Whitewashed Cover of Daughter of the Empire is that the edition I have of Servant of the Empire from my teen reading years does not feature a blonde Mara on the front cover.
This Mara looks more Arabic than Asian, but as she is portrayed largely in shadow and with a setting sun behind her, the overall effect is racially non-specific, and not especially white, which allows the reader to make their own call. The lack of blondness is a definite improvement! It probably doesn’t hurt that the artist of this particular cover is Don Maitz, husband of one of the book’s authors.
Now, most deriders of BFF (big fat fantasy) tend to proclaim that the second book of a trilogy is the flabby, over-padded one.
I, however, subscribe to the Sarah Rees Brennan theory of trilogy structure:
Book 1—Set Up
Book 2—Make Out
Book 3—Defeat Evil
So let’s hope there’s some kissing in this one, yes? Bring on the kissing. And maybe a bit more exploration of the political nuance of a worldview reliant on slavery? But mostly kissing.
Chapter 1: Slave
SUMMARY: Mara approaches the slave market, still fuming about a recent argument she had with her hadonra Jican about her planned purchases. Her bodyguard Lujan conveniently muses on the story so far.
In short: Mara’s greatest enemy is dead, but his son is still out to get her, and the blood feud continues between the Minwanabi and her own family, the Acoma.
But let’s get back to the shopping.
Mara’s plan—and the reason for her falling out with Jican—is to purchase barbarian Midkemian slaves who have been taken as prisoners of war from beyond the rift. They are much cheaper than local slaves, but are also considered far more dangerous, mostly because they are less accepting of the concept of slavery (you don’t say!) and are uneducated in the ways of the Tsurani.
For those reading these books without the benefit of having read Raymond E Feist’s Magician and its many sequels, these fellows are from a much more traditional anglo-white medieval style fantasy world, where men are men, horses are horses, and it snows in winter.
At first, the Midkemian slaves sold at high prices because of their “exotic nature,” but once it became obvious that they made bloody awful slaves, the price dropped a lot. Only the occasional super rare beautiful redhead earns a decent price now, while the rest are bargain basement.
Speaking of beautiful redheads, there’s a particularly tall and dashing example standing in the slave pens, and he has certainly caught Mara’s eye. Before she can check him out more thoroughly, however, she and Lujan are approached by Hokanu of the Shinzawai.
Lujan watches with some amusement as the two aristocratic youngsters flirt nervously with each other. It’s rare for Mara to be able to converse with a trusted friend of her own class, but Hokanu and his father both stood up for her at a time when she needed it. He is here to discreetly purchase some intractable Midkemian labour. They both fall over themselves trying to withdraw from competition out of mutual politeness.
Hokanu is deeply attracted to Mara and his inner thoughts provide us with some insights into about her sexual history with her brutish late husband, Buntokapi. Because that’s not creepy at all. Ah, more dripped backstory from the previous volume. Nicely done, Mr Feist and Ms Wurts.
In exchange for a date at some point in the future, Hokanu manages to win the politeness duel, and withdraws his interest in the Midkemians. Once he is gone, Mara’s attention is caught once more by the tall, redheaded barbarian slave who appears now to have something of a sense of humour. He is a leader among his men, and shows nothing of the appropriate shame or humbleness for his station.
‘By the gods, will you look at him!’ exclaimed Lujan in astonishment. ‘He acts as if slaves were born with the right to argue. If they’re all as brazen as this fellow, it’s no wonder a slave master must beat their skins off to get half a day’s work from them.’
As Mara watches in fascination, the Midkemian slaves outwit their overseer, first with passive resistance, then setting up a slapstick chase/riot routine to hide the fact that they are stealing shirts, which they then discreetly pass to a buyer in order to earn themselves coin.
Even when their redhead leader is whipped for his rebellion, he does not react as a normal slave should—instead he fights and resists the blows. Mara calls a halt to the punishment, demanding to buy the slaves only if they receive no further physical damage.
She purchases two dozen of them, and finds them difficult to manage as she sets off home, as the slaves argue their need for sandals before walking the streets of the city.
Ironically it’s actually one of her litter bearers who cuts his foot during the journey, attempting to continue his job despite the pain until Lujan realises what is going on. Mara suggests that the new redhead barbarian take the man’s place. This is a terrible idea, as the redhead is far taller than the other bearers, and Mara almost slides on to the street.
The barbarian talks back to Lujan, his tone cheeky and inappropriate, but his point—that they should call over three of his countrymen the same height—is pretty reasonable.
Mara’s ride home is nevertheless horribly uncomfortable, as the Midkemian men are not used to this job and don’t know how to time their strides to keep the litter smooth. But at least she doesn’t fall out.
COMMENTARY: So much to talk about! And what was that I just said about kissing? We have Mara checking out the physical attractiveness of two very different men right here from Page 1, Chapter 1. Very nice.
As in Daughter of the Empire, this first chapter has some beautiful descriptive writing in it, setting up the world and so many sensual details. There’s even another long travelogue litter journey, though it is far less emotionally fraught than the one that opened the first volume in this series.
We spend some time in the heads of both Hokanu and Lujan, which is new. Hokanu is definitely interested in our girl and oh, he’s such an improvement on Buntokapi. Seriously, Mara, marry him right now.
I was actually surprised at how small a role Lujan had in Daughter of the Empire, as I hadn’t remembered quite that his importance to Mara is not cemented until after the death of Papewaio. (Sigh, oh Papewaio, I do miss you) We’re getting far more of a sense for the character than before—particularly his sense of humour and charm around Mara.
However, I chose the above quote for a reason—for all his character traits that make him unusually laidback for a Tsurani, Lujan is very much a product of his society. As a Grey Warrior, he lived the life of a soldier who had lost his master and family honour, and he must know how unfair it is that the servants of the same household ended up as literal slaves. And yet, without even thinking, he mouths the words about how slaves are not born with the right to argue.
Not all slaves in this world are born to it!
The Tsurani religion, of course, with its concept of everyone sticking to the correct place, is at least partly at fault for this. It is still interesting that it is Lujan who tells the readers of the expectations that Tsurani take for granted about slaves. The litter bearer with his cut foot is another example of how accepting all Tsurani are about the position of slaves.
But here come the Midkemians to shake everyone up! I love how Mara shifts from being impressed at their clever antics, and snarking at the overseer about the slaves’ lack of proper clothing, to rolling her eyes with impatience that they want shoes of all things. Shoes!
Feist and Wurts are very good at showing us Mara’s faults and blind spots while telling the story mostly through her point of view. The comment about her not thinking about the poor and underprivileged people in the city was important, but actually the one that really leaped out at me was when she explained why she needed so many new slaves—the cho-ja hive requires new pasture which means forest clearing, and slaves who do that particular task in the wet season tend to fall ill very easily, so she needs reinforcements.
Not a hint of sympathy towards the slaves who will be ill or perhaps even die because of that work. At this point in her evolution, Mara sees them as tools rather than people. Farm equipment.
But oh, that tall redhead streak of barbarian farm equipment, he’s very easy on the eye, isn’t he?
Tansy Rayner Roberts is an Australian fantasy author, blogger and podcaster. She won the 2013 Hugo for Best Fan Writer. Tansy has a PhD in Classics, which she drew upon for her short story collection Love and Romanpunk. Her latest fiction project is Musketeer Space, a gender-swapped space opera retelling of The Three Musketeers, published weekly as a web serial. Come and find her on Twitter!