Welcome back to the Servant of the Empire Reread.
This week in the ongoing adventures of Mara of the Acoma, it’s all about admin, flirting with sexy redhead barbarians, and the vengeance of her enemies. But mostly it’s about admin. Also you get two chapters, because one of them is full of nothing much happening at all!
Chapter 2: Planning
Incomo, the First Advisor of the Minwanabi, isn’t having a great time either, mostly because he has to deal with Desio. Desio is no fun to work with.
When Incomo tries to encourage Desio to make a decision about shipping deliveries, Desio snaps and beats a fan slave half to death. The only thing he cares about is that Mara of the Acoma must die.
Incomo’s advice (given very, very carefully) is to recall Tasaio, Desio’s cousin, from the war in Midkemia. Desio is skeptical, as Tasaio is his heir until Desio sires children and thus a political threat, but Incomo convinces him that his cousin will be a valuable and loyal weapon against Mara and her machinations.
To Incomo’s dismay, Desio takes it all too far, swearing upon the Red God himself that “blood will flow freely until I have the Acoma bitch’s head!” Bit ominous.
Mara is having a far more pleasant meeting with her advisors in the garden. The cho-ja’s silk makers are working away, and the first crop is going to contribute a great deal to the Acoma finances. There is no sign yet that their enemies the Minwanabi are in anything other than chaos. Oh, and Arakasi is back from his latest jaunt collecting information.
Arakasi confirms Mara’s previous observations of Desio—he is a weak ruler and more likely to rely on his powerful friends than come up with any clever strategy of his own. But that does not mean he is not dangerous—he has paid to construct a prayer gate to the Red God and most worrying of all, the actually-competent Tasaio has been recalled from the front.
COMMENTARY: There’s barely any action in this chapter at all, just meetings and warnings. We get to hear about Desio’s plans twice over, and Lujan makes an ill-timed dirty joke.
I do kind of love that Arakasi is regularly off on his adventures, spying and drinking martinis or whatever it is that spies do. I want to read the spin off books which are just about that. Though maybe we will get to see a glimpse of his espionage hijinks later in the series…
Chapter 3: Changes
SUMMARY: As Mara watches her little son Ayaki during his nap in a corner of her study, she becomes aware that the overseers are whipping the slaves again. Usually the lash is merely a ceremonial tool because Tsurani slaves have bought into their culture’s obsession with ‘know your place,’ but the Midkemians have failed to absorb the memo.
That tall redhead is being particularly troublesome—he’s learned some Tsurani and is trying to use it to convince the overseer that you can catch more flies with honey than with savage beatings.
To Mara’s shock, the argument ends up with a physical fight between the two men, and when she goes out to intervene she discovers that that barbarian has physically picked up the diminutive overseer.
Furiously, Mara puts a stop to the altercation and sends the smirking barbarian off to be beaten to the point of wishing he was dead. She is determined to make him learn humility. Meanwhile, she interrogates Elzeki the overseer about how he ended up arguing with the slaves in the first place.
Elzeki is at the end of his tether. The Midkemians have no ‘wal’—no spiritual sense of their place in the world—and the redhead in particular is a ringleader.
Mara is particularly shocked by Elzeki’s observation that the redhead acts like a nobleman and an officer—men of such high rank are always honoured with execution by the Tsurani rather than being forced into slavery.
Under further questioning, though, Mara and Jican learn that the redhead’s suggestions as to the management of slaves were actually quite reasonable. He noted that his own men were larger and more susceptible to heat exhaustion than the Tsurani, and thus should be given more water rations. Also, if a slave has actually collapsed from heatstroke, it might not be a bad idea to send him inside to rest.
Mara is embarrassed to discover that she sent the slave to be punished when he was trying to be helpful, and calls off the beating. She plans to deal with the Midkemian barbarian leader personally, and she’s looking forward to it a little too much…
The redhead is brought in, bleeding and soaked after a dunk in the needra trough. Mara insists that towels be brought in to clean him up before he drips all over her floor, but her other servants and warrior struggle to grasp the whole ‘treating a slave like a human being’ concept.
Mara dismisses the others, and tells the slave that she was too hasty in ordering his punishment. He in turn insists that she use his name—he is Kevin of Zun.
She tries to understand why he keeps challenging his lot in life as a slave—obviously he chose this dishonoured life over death. To her horror, she discovers that Kevin has a very different definition of honour than the Tsurani—as far as he is concerned, staying alive means the potential to escape and return to his old life.
Kevin laughed bitterly. ‘What good is honour to a dead man?’
Mara blinked, as if struck by harsh lights in a dark room. ‘Honour is… everything,’ Mara said, not believing anyone could ask that question. ‘It is what makes living endurable. It gives purpose to… everything. What else is there to live for?’
Once she recovers from the idea that the Midkemian slaves might be so crass as to consider the possibility of escape, Mara realises that she has an opportunity to gather vital intelligence about the culture and thought processes of the barbarian enemy.
That’s a good excuse for their first date if ever I heard one!
Her first question is about the relationship between servants and masters in Midkemia. Kevin takes this opportunity to sexually harass her, making smutty innuendo about how no mistress would appear clad in such a flimsy robe before her servants, unless she was expecting them to ravish her.
Charming bit of cross cultural sharing there, Kevin. Good work, Mr “let’s talk about how you’re doing equality wrong.”
When Mara points out that for a slave to say such things about his mistress, the bare minimum punishment is a slow and painful death, Kevin backtracks quickly and starts talking about the weather, suggesting that the cooler climate in Midkemia means that chaps don’t see as much lady flesh as they do on this hotter world.
Mara allows the distraction, interested as she is in chatting about snow, and the wearing of leather and furs. From there they move on to class systems, metalworking, and other items of interest.
Speaking of interest, Mara isn’t just after Kevin for his mind and his cultural information—she’s also checking him out. When she realises they have been talking all day, she orders him to be bathed, robed and sent to her personal quarters.
For more talking. Uh huh.
Kevin blows her a kiss as he leaves. Nacoya is skeptical of Mara’s assurance that she doesn’t fancy the Midkemian. The elderly First Advisor foresees trouble.
She’s not wrong.
COMMENTARY: Booty call!
I’m all for Mara finally getting in touch with her sexuality, and opening her mind to something other than the very restrictive Tsurani society, but oh Kevin drives me nuts.
This chapter lays out a lot of reasons for my Kevin conflict. He’s an interesting addition to the story, and he kickstarts the important process of knocking away some of Mara’s assumptions about life and her own society. But at the same time, he all but tells Mara that if she wore such a skimpy robe in front of the servants where he comes from, she would be asking for them to assault her.
So Kevin, who I seem to recall spends a large part of this book telling Mara how backward her society is when it comes to human rights, thinks nothing of making degrading comments about and objectifying women. He’s so wrapped up in the class issue that anything to do with sexism completely passes him by. It doesn’t help that while Mara does shut him down by reminding him of their power imbalance, his whole ‘hey women are worth less than men’ schtick is treated in the narrative as sexy foreplay.
I’m hoping there isn’t more of the same still to come. Just because Kevin is completely right about the Tsurani’s disturbing attitude to honour and slavery doesn’t mean that I’m going to enjoy reading a whole book in which our main protagonist is constantly told how wrong she is by the man she’s attracted to.
Quick, someone attack, let’s have some battle scenes instead. Desio and Tasaio, I’m relying on you guys to come through for me.
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!