Welcome back to the reread of Servant of the Empire by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts! If you’re here for the political drama, look no further than this chapter. House of Cards, eat your heart out.
Okay, I was kidding about this last week, but really? A chapter called Resolution? Was this a placeholder?
On the other hand, after all the tension of the book so far, I’m quite looking forward to some resolution. Bring it.
SUMMARY: Mara has an audience with the young Emperor Ichindar, in which she outlines her audacious and controversial plan. They bond a little over their mutual history of tradition-busting.
When Ichindar hesitates, Mara points out that they have two choices here, to resolve the current Empire drama. The purely easy method is for her to help Tasaio take the white and gold of the Warlord, as she promised him. The armies would stand down, the Emperor could retire from his current active involvement in politics and return to being a spiritual figurehead—in this scenario, even Mara would get home to her estates alive, assuming Tasaio kept the bargain.
On the other hand, if they put Mara’s plan into action, they have a chance to enact genuine change.
One of the priests in attendance notes that the Super Plan (as opposed to the Safe Peaceful Plan) requires Mara to sacrifice family honour by breaking a sacred oath to Tasaio of the Minwanabi, which would cause the gods to look upon her with disfavour.
Mara is willing to make that sacrifice for the Empire.
Ichindar makes vaguely threatening suggestions to the priests that they should not impugn Mara’s honour considering how noble and awesomely patriotic she is being right now.
He then reveals that the reason he got into the Great Game was because he saw what Almecho (his uncle, former Warlord) was willing to risk—damage and suffering to the Empire—in order to hang on to power. In working with Lord Kamatsu to mitigate some of that damage, Ichindar came to a realisation that some of the rules that govern Tsurani society are just nuts are due to be re-examined.
Ichindar reveals to Mara that the rumours are true—the ancient mythical Enemy exists and was discovered in the Rift. Along with the Assembly of Magicians, he believes that their world needs to be prepared to meet this foe.
He also lets slip that Mara’s dear friend Hokanu was part of a recent visit to the other world, where he was reunited with his lost brother. Kasumi, formerly a captive of the Minwanabi, rose in such esteem by his captors that he was given a noble title and estate.
This shakes Mara. She is ashamed that Midkemian society has provision for an honourable captive to rise to a position of such honour, when the same cannot be said for the ‘barbarians’ taken captive by the Tsurani. She goes so far as to suggest that maybe the Midkemians are not the barbarians in this scenario. Far from being insulted, Ichindar is impressed, because he and Lord Kamatsu had come to a similar realisation on their own.
Resigned to a scheme that they have not yet made explicit in the text, Ichindar prepares himself to confront Tasaio, and Mara returns to her townhouse.
That night, Mara and the rest of the Ruling Lords in the city take part in a great, elaborate pattern of calling on each other and promising allegiances. Mara learns that Jiro of the Anasati is trying to unseat Frasai of the Tonmargu as Warchief of Clan Ionani and is rapidly building support.
Oh, Jiro, still so bitter about how Mara picked your younger brother over you to marry and murder.
Mara is ready to start using all those votes and promises she has been collecting over the last several years—Lord Iliando refuses to let her call in her chip over the Frasai-Jiro conflict, however, as it would affect his family honour to change his allegiance to Frasai after pledging to Jiro.
Mara has a slightly different use for his vote in mind, however, and she isn’t necessarily playing the same Game as everyone else.
Her next stop is Lord Kamatsu of the Shinzawai, whom she finds in quiet discussion with his former brother, the Great One Fumita. Kamatsu is concerned that Mara is here to press him about her recent marriage proposal to Hokanu, which is a bit awkward because he’s not ready to decide on it. Hokanu remains his heir, even though Kasumi is still alive—the eldest Shinzawai son is going to be staying on his new estate in Midkemia.
Mara assures him that she’s not here to push the marriage issue. Instead, she explains her Super Plan to both men, and they listen.
The next day, Tasaio is informed that he may finally meet with the Emperor in the hall that formerly housed the High Council. He arrives to find most of the Ruling Lords already in their seats.
The Warlord’s white and gold throne is completely absent and Mara of the Acoma is sitting on the dais near the feet of the Emperor looking awfully… cozy.
Oh Tasaio, something tells me you’re about to have a very bad day.
Tasaio rallies, declaring to the Emperor that they need to return the High Council to its proper position, and to reinstate the office of Warlord. The Light of Heaven agrees with him that it’s time for the High Council to get involved, but he wants them to ratify his recent changes, including the abolition of the office of Warlord. He announces the recent conflict with the Enemy and lets everyone in the hall know that it is Mara of the Acoma who convinced him it was time for a change.
Mara gets in her own dig, noting that she promised Tasaio that she would help no Lord take the white and gold throne before him, and look she kept her bargain—because the throne is gone and no one’s going to sit on it.
Ichindar stands for change, and Tasaio for unity. Jiro of the Anasati stands with Tasaio, making it clear that he does so out of his enmity for Mara. The various clans move and shift around the hall. Hoppara of the Xacatecas stands with the Emperor, as do many of his clan. Most of Clan Ionani have joined Jiro and Tasaio.
Mara starts calling in her chips. One by one, various lords attempting to stand with Tasaio are called out to change their vote, and their allies and vassals trail along in their wake. The Lord of the Hanqu, still angry that his name was used dishonourably by Tasaio to lure Mara into an ambush, chooses the Emperor.
Tasaio is very quick and smug to point out that they have a stalemate.
But some old friends have not yet made their position clear. Frasai of the Tonmargu—still the Warchief of Clan Ionani as Jiro has not yet had time to formally unseat him—marches into the hall and surrenders his staff to the Emperor, pledging Clan Ionani to him.
Jiro is furious at this, but Frasai calmly states that Ichindar is technically a relative, so it’s all above board.
Before Jiro can argue, Lord Kamatsu of the Shinzawai makes an entrance and hands over the Warchief staff of the Kanazawai Clan.
Tasaio loses it at this point, yelling about tradition—but Mara takes the opportunity to give him a history lesson. Only the top five families of the Empire have been allowed to take the office of Warlord—because they are the most closely related to the Light of Heaven’s direct line, each descended from brothers of an earlier Emperor. So yes, Ichindar is qualified to hold all the staffs.
Lord Hoppara of the Xacatecas hands over his Warchief staff at this point: “For the Good of the Empire!” Ichindar gravely informs them all that he received the Omechan Clan warstaff earlier that day.
Jiro of the Anasati is not happy about this, but he’s smart enough to see which way the wind is blowing, and abandons Tasaio. His crowd of allies and vassals go with him.
Tasaio calls out Bruli of the Kehotara as a traitor for ditching the Minwanabi after decades of loyal service.
Bruli replies by pointing out that the Minwanabi had no hesitation in using him as a pawn in the game against the Acoma, and that he was treated more generously by Mara as she defeated him than he ever was by Desio or Tasaio.
Mara is glad of this, pledging friendship between the Acoma and the Kehotara.
Tasaio is so furious that he declares war between his own Clan Shonshoni and Mara’s Clan Hadama, baring his metal sword in the air for emphasis.
Worried at this worst possible outcome, Mara puts her armies at the Emperor’s disposal, as do many of the allies around him. Before they can get much further, the Assembly of Magicians turn up to order that there will be no conflict.
The whim of the Great Ones is law.
Mara knows that her life is now in their hands, and can only hope that Fumita was impressed when he heard her discuss her plan with Kamatsu.
The Great Ones declare that Mara has been judged as acting in service to the Empire, and thus her life is sacrosanct. To prevent civil war, they forbid Tasaio from entering into any conflict with her, ever. This screws with Tasaio’s oath to Turakamu, permanently.
Imagine how much the Great Ones care.
Tasaio concedes, unbuckling his sword and presenting it to Mara the victor. She has the class to suggest it was a close-run thing, but he laughs. Obviously the gods were on her side all along.
As Tasaio is escorted out by a Great One, Mara speaks up—the original vow made by Desio included all of his family, but she wishes Tasaio’s wife and children to be spared. When it is clear there is no loophole, she begs Tasaio to release the children from his family natami, offering to adopt them herself into House Acoma.
Tasaio would rather Mara live with their blood on her hands. He hands his own clan’s Warchief staff over to the Lord of the Sejaio before allowing the Great One to teleport him away.
The Lord of the Sejaio does not know if he is serving the Good of the Empire, by handing the staff directly to the Emperor, but he knows that the gods are all about siding with the winners.
Ichindar, Light of Heaven and Emperor, snaps all of the Warchief staffs in half, and declares that the office of Warlord is no more. He creates new appointments instead: Kamatsu of the Shinzawai as his Imperial Chancellor, Frasai of the Tonmargu as his Imperial Overlord (doing the Warlord’s job but at the bidding of the Emperor) with Hoppara of the Xacatecas as his deputy.
Mara gives Hoppara the Minwanabi sword so that he can send it to the desert men and fulfil his father’s vow.
But what reward can the Emperor offer Mara for bringing peace and stability to the Empire?
At first, she is unwilling to accept any reward, but when pressed she asks for the estate of the Minwanabi. Everyone is shocked she has requested such an ill-omened gift—normally such lands would be abandoned—but she is tired of the waste that their traditions so often promote. She will bring in priests to bless and cleanse the property, but ultimately she will make her home there.
The Emperor not only agrees with her but decides to give her an extra honour that she has not asked for: the ancient title of Servant of the Empire. Mara will be honoured thus until the end of her days, and is now an adopted member of the Imperial family.
Finally, she has the one thing she has wanted above all things since Ayaki was born: a guarantee of safety for herself, and for her children.
COMMENTARY: I swear, this is the longest chapter in the series so far. I apologise for how stupidly long the post got, but SO MUCH HAPPENS and it’s ALL IMPORTANT.
Reading Servant of the Empire like this has meant I’ve spent the last several months contemplating and discussing the art of the middle book. The middle book of a fat fantasy trilogy has such a bad rap, and is often used as an example of why people are so over the trilogy as a common structure in our genre.
But Servant of the Empire blows all of the ‘flabby middle’ dismissals out of the water. This chapter is the culmination of pretty much every event in the two books thus far. It ties together and provides either climax or closure to all manner of seemingly minor storylines including the death of Mara’s father and brother, the fate of Buntokapi, the seduction of Bruli, the alliance with the Xacatecas and Mara’s friendship with Lord Chipino during the desert war, the Magicians, and every small triumph, failure or accord Mara has made since the start.
Just about every political or personal thread set up in the narrative is paid off, right here, at the end of Book 2, including—and this is the big one—the downfall of Mara’s greatest enemy.
Mara has come into her own power, she has used every card she has to play and she has won big—she is now basically untouchable. And it’s only the end of the second book.
Daughter of the Empire worked as a standalone story, which is not uncommon in the first book of a fantasy trilogy—you often find you can walk away from a series at that point and be mostly satisfied. But I am astounded to discover that the same is true for Servant of the Empire (and I know there’s still a chapter to go, but the point stands).
The world has been changed, and I don’t know where the third book is even going from here—most of what I remembered before this re-read was from the first two volumes, and while I have a clear memory of the very end of the story, I have no idea what’s going to fill the 800 or so pages before we get there.
My five year old saw me reading Servant this morning and said “Mummy, that looks like a long book. Is it a long book?”
It’s a really long book. But next time I hear someone diss the all important middle of the fantasy trilogy structure as a waste of time, or wheel-spinning, or flabby (poor middle books, they must have such a complex about their waistline), I’m going to cite Servant of the Empire as the reason that they are wrong.
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!