Welcome back to the reread of Mistress of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts.
Mara is off on her travels again in this chapter of shipboard banter, cross country matchmaking, and doing the hipster tourist thing of avoiding the glamorous cities in order to trudge through the more ‘authentic’ areas of a foreign land.
Summary: Jamel, a “lesser-path” magician who has broken his sacred vow to share information about his profession with Mara of the Acoma, flees the retribution of his peers and kills himself rather than let them interrogate him.
Arriving too late, Great Ones Tapek and Shimone summon a vision of the meeting between Jamel, Mara and her men, but thanks to a few carefully placed handkerchiefs during the meeting, they are not able to discover what was discussed. Tapek is furious—his companion rather amused. The two of them range all over the city, tracking Mara by an illusion spell recreating her steps, only to find that she has been leading them a merry dance, all the way to the temple to Turakamu the Red God of Death.
The high priest respectfully refuses to send Mara out to speak with them, as she has gone into the inner sanctum for spiritual seclusion, where she may remain for weeks or indeed months.
Once more Tapek blows a gasket, and when Shimone tries to calm him down, he accuses him of being just as bad as Hochopepa and Fumita, who are obviously far more sympathetic to Mara’s cause than any self-respecting Magician should be. Shimone convinces Tapek not to actually attack a temple, given the potential bad PR of the situation. He goes away muttering.
And… of course, Mara has already sneaked out the back way and is on a trader ship heading for her next great adventure.
How did she do it? By once again being prepared to set aside the long-ingrained cultural norms of her people, in this case by donning the robes of a slave woman to evade the notice of the Great Ones. Even though it would mean her death, had anyone recognised her at the time.
She made it back to the cho-ja hive on her original family estate and hid there until the supplies (and a very sulky Kamlio) were collected for her, then set out to the south, heading for the Coalteca. This is the same ship on which she travelled with Kevin years ago, and while it brings her sad memories (or rather, the sadness of happy memories) she does think it was a good idea to buy this rather than any other ship, as it must be lucky given the success of the campaign she went on with Lord Chipino of the Xacatecas.
Mara has many worries: she has left the country to head into dangerous, unknown territory without letting Hokanu know that she was even leaving, let alone that she was leaving their children in the care of the Imperial Court (who will undoubtedly spoil them).
Sarin tries to cheer her up, mostly by pretending that Lujan has been predicting she and the super-complainy Kamlio will end up fighting “like teeshas” (meow, catfight).
Later on the deck, Mara and Lujan reminisce about Kevin and his seasickness, just in case we were in any danger of forgetting the red-haired barbarian. Lujan then tries to tease Kamlio out of her permanent bad mood, but she doesn’t respond positively to any of his comic material about prostitutes, or how pretty she is.
Lujan, just stop that right now.
Lost in nostalgia, Mara has the thought that, had her brother succeeded their father as was originally intended, Tsuranuanni would likely look very different right now, with a Minwanabi overlord.
Land ho! Mara looks wistfully at the exotic cities that they can see as they come in to land in a discreet cove between Honshoni and Sweto. They are too close to the imperial border to think themselves safe from the Assembly of Magicians.
Instead of getting to browse and enjoy the more glamorous cities, their party has a harsh overland journey across the rough terrain of Thuril. Lujan gets to show off his skulking skills from his Grey Warrior days, and has fun training up Mara’s new generation of warriors to do the same.
Mara is delighted to see how Kamlio changes her attitude over the course of the harsh journey—gradually, the young woman becomes more comfortable, letting her hair tangle and not flinching so much around men.
She even unbends enough to request self defence lessons from Lujan, though she is furious when he mentions Arakasi’s knife skills, shouting that he was the one she wanted to defend herself from. Lujan quietly notes that Arakasi would stand still and let her carve out her heart if she wanted it…
As their journey wears on, Mara has to learn to ride a donkey, and Lujan reminds her of that time he had to ride a cho-ja in the midst of battle!
Finally they meet with a highlander who represents the tribe that Mara hoped to parley with. He insults her, refusing to believe that a band of men can be led by a mere female, and Mara attempts to bluff him with threats and general attitude.
She miscalculates by making her men all disarm to prove they are here on a peace mission, only for the highlander and his men to promptly take them all captive. WHOOPS.
Commentary: The big theme through this chapter is the ongoing friendship between Mara and Lujan. Her relationships with the various people in service to her family are all fraught with layered tensions, because she is in a position of power over them, and yet they are also the people she knows best and spends most time with, so they often slide into a casual familiarity, especially when far from home.
Mara’s friendship with Lujan has always been affected by her association between him with his ready wit and general cheekiness, and her now long-dead brother who had a similar personality. It’s interesting that as she gets older, she is romanticising her brother less, well aware that she has surpassed the training and education that he received as a child.
Lujan is both lovely and a complete jerk in this chapter! His teasing of Kamlio can be read as him trying to make her one of the gang, but he’s also pressuring her both with his flirtiness (which we have established is a major trigger for her) and with his desire to change her mind about his bro Arakasi.
His little speech about how the women of the Reed Life he hooks up with are all totally happy and content with their sexual interactions was completely believable and at the same time had Nice Guy Syndrome all over it and was beyond tactless.
Apart from that really uncomfortable conversation, Lujan gets some pretty great material in this chapter. I’ve always loved his interactions with Mara and it’s fascinating to watch how she calls him out on stepping over those invisible lines of ‘too far, dude, I’m your boss.’ He really likes getting super close to those lines, and she rather likes watching him play with their boundaries.
This is in complete opposition to the scenes with Kamlio, because of the power balance. Mara always has the power in her scenes with Lujan; Kamlio is not only beholden to them all, but she has less of an idea where the boundaries are. For all she knows, Mara could hand her over to any of her men as a sexual or faux-romantic reward at any moment.
It’s kind of everyone’s fault that Kamlio screws up the fire out of pique and they all have to go to ground for four days in case the smoke gives them away. Don’t tease the trauma victim.
More and more I am liking the layers that we get to see of Kamlio as she comes out of her shell, even if there are occasional hints of victim blaming in the narrative. I actually laughed to see that she was called a fishwife AND a shrew within 2 paragraphs, which are key squares on the gendered slur bingo card… and yet, fishwife, at least, wasn’t presented as a negative so much as a funny example of how she’s loosening up enough to swear and shout at Lujan while he teaches her weapons skills.
I always wonder how the fishwives feel about being held up as an example of overly-loud and shrill women.
I note that while Lujan was completely unsubtle in his championing Arakasi as a suitable lover for Kamlio, Mara is playing the long game, following up Kamlio’s emotional outburst with the occasional sneaky jibe because, well. They all ship it.
Still, it’s Kamlio’s choice and I do appreciate that the authors are showing how difficult and complicated that choice is for her, rather than just throwing her into Arakasi’s arms to reward him for his service (even if the supporting cast are basically chanting NOW KISS in unison). All these angsty edges make for compelling drama.
Plus, Mara getting to interact with another adult woman. Rare thing! Since Nacoya died, she hasn’t had any regular female characters around her, and I like that even though the ‘catfight’ trope has been referenced, Mara really cares about Kamlio for herself, not just as Arakasi’s future (maybe) girlfriend.
Tansy Rayner Roberts is an Australian fantasy author, blogger and podcaster. She won the 2013 Hugo for Best Fan Writer. Tansy’s latest piece of fiction is “Fake Geek Girl,” a novelette at the Australian Review of Fiction, and she also writes crime fiction under the pen-name of Livia Day. Come and find TansyRR on Twitter, sign up for her Author Newsletter, or listen to her on Galactic Suburbia!