Welcome back to the Servant of the Empire Reread!
Potential trigger warning: this chapter contains violence and aggression in a domestic/romantic context. Also slavery as an ongoing theme. These books have a lot more disturbing content than I remember, actually…
There’s some fashion espionage and awkward dating protocol at the end to cheer us all up, though. And a surprise cameo from some other books you may have heard of…
SUMMARY: Mara and Kevin are on another cozy date—well, Mara calls it an interrogation, but the lights are low and the barbarian man is wearing knotted silk. What do we think is going on?
The two of them start out with flirtatious banter and easy conversations about culture and food and nothing remotely political. Mara even catches herself thinking of Kevin as a man and not a slave (a very telling comment about the role of slavery in her culture).
But then he gets caught up in nostalgia about horses and how awesome they are, not realising that the use of Midkemian horses in battle has become a thing of nightmares for the Tsurani—and Mara in particular, who knows her father and brother fell in a battle against cavalry. She orders him to stop talking.
Kevin suggests that she is afraid and Mara is so offended and shamed by the very idea that they end up in an almighty fight. He decides that since their nations are still at war, and he is her captive, he is not going to give her any more information.
Mara is furious, insisting that he is not a captive, but her property. Kevin physically attacks her, grabbing her around her throat and physically shaking her, proud that he has finally proved he can frighten her.
Kevin declares that her life from now on is his gift—a slave’s gift. No matter what she does to him in the future, she will have to know it was because he allowed her to live. He even throws a bit in about how in his culture it’s not considered honourable to harm women (NICE TO KNOW, KEVIN) and a memorable phrase: you can kill me, but you can’t eat me.
In shock after his violent attack on her, and remembering her husband’s abuse, Mara’s first instinct is to have him whipped or executed, but as his words sink in she finds herself unable to make that command. Instead she sends him away to return to her the next day. Kevin is smug as he leaves.
Mara works through her anger, then meditates, then finds herself laughing with something like hysteria. Eating him seems like a pretty good idea right now. I don’t know if this is even a euphemism.
A day passes. It is a sign of Mara’s personal growth that she doesn’t have Kevin whipped at any point, though she is sorely tempted to do so.
For their next date, she leaves Kevin kneeling on the carpet while she does paperwork.
One of her first questions to him this time around is about slavery in Midkemia, and whether a slave in his world can ever go free. Kevin tells her that in the Kingdom (presumably where he comes from) they cannot because only criminals with life imprisonment are enslaved there, but in places like Kesh or Queg a slave may be freed for good behaviour, or might escape across the border and earn his freedom that way.
Mara is shocked and fascinated by the idea that Kevin himself would not suffer any loss of face if he were to escape and return home—if anything he would be celebrated for outwitting the enemy in that way.
This is starting to seriously mess with Mara’s head. Kevin’s Midkemian view on the world is turning so many of her own beliefs upside down, and she is aware that the very process of Midkemian logic she is starting to understand is also heresy in her own culture.
She’s learning about the enemy, but at what cost?
On the one hand, it would probably be best for her world to have these dangerous barbarians executed right now—but on the other hand, she is acquiring valuable intelligence which might prove useful in the Game of Council.
She questions Kevin further on gender roles in his world—if women are so valued, that means wives make all the decisions, yes? He laughs and leers at her, and Mara finds herself self-conscious of her scanty clothing, despite her cultural attitude that nudity isn’t a big deal.
Next, they get into one of those intense political conversations that Mara has instead of a social life (I feel Arakasi should be jealous at this point, because that’s his thing with her). She decides that since Kevin is officially her enemy now, it’s time to start manipulating him properly—and pulls ‘teasing flirt’ out of her tool box. She announces that Kevin will be her body slave from now on.
Lujan thinks this is a bad idea, because he has an ounce of military tactics in his head and everyone has obviously been having the ‘oh someone has to tell her this bloke is bad for her, it had better be Lujan’ conference behind Mara’s back.
After a month of this, Kevin is practically part of the family. He and Ayaki have become fast friends, and Mara finds herself chiding them both for mischievous behaviour after a visit to the cho-ja hive.
Kevin is included in a formal meeting with Keyoke and Arakasi, to discuss Tasaio’s new role in the house of Minwanabi. A thyza caravan was attacked recently, as predicted for them by Arakasi’s agent. The Spy Master is suspicious, as the information was surprisingly exact, and the men who died did so as if it were a noble sacrifice.
Their concern is that the first shipment of silk from the cho-ja hive must go to market soon, and the Minwanabi may be testing them for information in order to prepare for a bigger raid.
Kevin often interrupts Mara’s military briefings with Keyoke (who is quite long-suffering about it) and this time suggests a red herring manoeuvre—they can hide suspicious fake packages in all their transport carts over a long period, and then hide the silk somewhere else in plain sight—as scarves or underrobes on the slaves, for instance.
Nacoya bursts into the meeting, because Hokanu of the Shinzawai (that boy we like!) is coming for dinner and Mara needs to be pretty. Kevin is forgotten in the shuffle which means not only that he remains in the room while Mara bathes, but he is also dragged along in her retinue for the hot date, because she doesn’t remember he’s still there.
Things to not bring on a first date: that red-haired barbarian you keep flirting with.
Kevin grows jealous of hot Hokanu as he and Mara share a nice meal together, and he only manages not to let the snark out because Mara spots the warning signs and sends him away. He is then caught ‘idling’ by Jican and sent to take water to the Shinzawai Midkemian slaves.
One of those slaves is a man called Pug, and another is called Laurie. If this doesn’t mean anything to you, then you probably haven’t read Feist’s Magician trilogy. That’s okay, these books are better.
Pug and Kevin exchange their experiences as noblemen pretending to be commoners to stay alive, and Pug warns him of the Tsurani’s ruthless attitude towards honour, and how slaves apparently don’t have any.
Kevin is kept busy for the rest of the night, his duties and even his orders about when to sleep meaning that he never gets back to talk to his countrymen again. He goes to sleep punching his pillow and repeating the words ‘Damn that bitch.’
COMMENTARY: Okay, so this is deeply uncomfortable! It’s a good thing that the creepy power imbalance between Mara and Kevin isn’t being glossed over here—but his need to keep reasserting his masculinity through aggression and violence makes for a whole different kind of power imbalance.
This romance of theirs (and spoilers! that’s what this is) comes with abusive undertones, and the scene in which Kevin tries to strangle her is followed up by them both processing how attracted they are to each other while still hating/resenting the power that the other has over them. I found it particularly concerning that we finally get several scenes from Kevin’s point of view, but they are mostly about his anger and frustration at Mara and the Tsurani culture, and show little remorse or internal conflict about the fact that he grabbed a woman around the throat and shook her violently while attempting to frighten her into submission.
I have to keep reminding myself that these books were written in the ’80s when rapist-redeemed was still a popular trope in mainstream romance fiction and soap opera. But even with that in mind, the fact that Kevin’s actions remind Mara so strongly of her husband’s violence towards her in her marriage must surely have raised red flags that this “romance” is problematic.
I’m now remembering more reasons why I found Kevin difficult to sympathise with the first time around, in any case, though I doubt I was aware enough to articulate what those reasons were. And yes I know that Mara has also exerted her undue power over him since she bought him in the slave market—the ick factor in this relationship is a two way street. Of course, it’s not a romantic relationship YET, but knowing that’s where the story is going puts a different light on their interactions. And even at this point, the writers are not being subtle that Mara and Kevin kind of want to jump each others’ bones.
Leaving aside the creepy romance, it’s very clear that the Tsurani attitude towards slavery is high on the agenda as far as this particular novel is concerned. One of Kevin’s cultural revelations really stuck out for me—they DO have slavery in Midkemia! So not quite as enlightened as he claimed in previous chapters.
I found particularly interesting that Kevin takes for granted that it’s okay to enslave criminals for life (wonder what the Kingdom judiciary system is like, and whether appeals are an option). He doesn’t, it seems, have a cultural objection to the idea of one person owning another as long as he feels it’s deserved in some way which is… not the same as objecting to slavery.
What we have here is not a cultural difference concerning morals and basic human rights—it’s purely a cultural difference about what honour is, and how important it is in the grand scale of things. I do wonder if Kevin would ever have thought even for a second about the terrible plight of slaves (in Midkemia and Tsurani) if he wasn’t in this position himself.
These people need a UN so badly right now.
Speaking of Midkemia and their barbarian ways, I’m not the person to go to for an insightful examination of what Pug and his mates are up to, because I found the Magician trilogy kind of dull, and don’t remember most of it (I reread the Empire books over and over, but was already cynical about traditional medieval fantasy by the time I got to Magician). I would love to hear in the comments from fans of the Midkemia-set novels who have any notes about this crossover moment, and what it means.
It’s got something to do with the Great Ones, right? That, I remember.
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!