Welcome back to the reread of Mistress of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts.
This week: Mara finds the power behind the throne in Thuril, and might finally be on track to forming an effective ‘we hate the Assembly of Magicians’ protest group.
Chapter 20: Council
SUMMARY: Another long and arduous journey for Mara and her fellow captives, though this time at least she is confined to a wicker wagon with Kamlio rather than having to walk as her men do.
Finally they arrive at Darabaldi, a slightly more cosmopolitan Thuril city than those they have seen so far—some of the stone huts have a second floor! Prostitutes are a symbol of a thriving economy!
The chief, Hotaba, is outraged by their presence, particularly the fact that Mara insists on speaking directly to him as if she’s an actual person and not a mere woman; it soon becomes clear, however, that despite his violent threats, he is easily managed by his cranky, loud spoken wife Mirana who heckles him from the corner.
With Mirana’s assistance, Mara comes close to reaching an accord with Hotaba and is even able to share her reason for visiting their lands—to consult with one of their magicians. It all falls apart when their captor (one of Hotaba’s many sons) shows off Kamlio as a prize to be enjoyed, and Mara loses her temper, making it clear that neither she nor her servant are prizes to be pawed.
Hotaba offers a trade; Kamlio for the information Mara seeks. While slightly tempted (NO, MARA), she refuses and is promptly whisked away by Mirana before Hotaba can blow another gasket.
Once the women are alone, they discuss why Kamlio is not available for sale. Mara has obviously impressed the older woman, who takes her to her favourite breadshop for further chatting and snacks.
Mirana assures Mara that despite their general demeanour, the men of her society are more into boasting and bluster than physical violence, and her own husband has been threatening to beat her without following through for decades. Yay? Nice to know the systematic oppression happening in this society is based on words rather than physical domestic violence, though bullying can take many forms and ‘my husband doesn’t beat me’ is a pretty low bar of decency.
After Mara explains her situation with the magicians of her world, and the advice given to her by the cho-ja queen, Mirana decides that she “will be heard”—and not by the male-dominated council run by her husband, it seems, but by the Thuril magicians themselves.
A mysterious cloaked figure appears before Mara and—IT’S A CRONE! To Mara’s astonishment, ladies can be magicians here in this apparent hive of sexism on the other side of the world. Mind—blown.
The Kaliane, spokesperson of the Council of Elders, makes it very clear that they do things differently than the Assembly, and reveals to Mara that there are plenty of young women born with magic in Tsuranuanni too—but the Assembly kills them.
Using magic, the Kaliane transports Mara to Doliane, a far more advanced and exquisite city than Mara with her prejudice against highlanders and foreigners ever expected to see. Notably, the streets are lit with cho-ja lamps. This may be relevant later.
Doliane is the Thuril equivalent to the City of the Magicians in Tsuranuanni, and Mara is the first of her race to be admitted inside, or even to learn of its existence.
Mara is tested by the Kaliane and the rest of the Elder Circle, who wish to know if she is worthy of earning their help against the Assembly. A spell robs her of her voice before she is asked to plead her case, and as memories of an old argument with Kevin swim through her mind, she realises the nature of this test—she cannot use words, she can only use memories of her own experience to prove her worthiness.
Mara is taken through her entire relationship with Kevin, one argument about cultural clashes at a time. She sees her battle against Tasaio, the death of her beloved son Ayaki, and basically gets a montage of memories of The Story So Far.
Was Eye of the Tiger playing in the background for everyone, or just me?
As the spell ends, Mara collapses in exhaustion. She has impressed the Elder Circle but not yet convinced them… they plan to debate her case through the night.
COMMENTARY: Mixed feelings, so many mixed feelings about this chapter!
I really like the way that Mara is learning so much more about Thuril society from the women behind the scenes than she is by using her usual trick of throwing titles and class privilege aroung. Cultures where women have strong unofficial influence behind the scenes, while men rule in public spaces, are common throughout history and it’s great to see fantasy which is acknowledges the hidden history of female power as well as the more conventional war-and-politics history of men.
(This was a major aspect of my doctorate which looked at the public image of imperial Roman women so, I’m at home with this concept)
But while I’m liking the whole idea of Mara making friends and influencing people among the women, and I’ve always been rather fond of the whole ‘female power behind the throne’ trope in fantasy, I’m also well aware of the down side. Often the ‘his wife wears the trousers’ convention in fantasy or historical fiction is played for laughs, or to pull the rug out from under the viewer—hey, you thought this culture was sexist, but LOOK LADIES DO STUFF TOO.
In this chapter in particular, before we met the Kaliane, I started to think about how often fantasy fiction romanticises the idea of women having unofficial power over big burly men who look like they could snap them in half—and teases the idea that there’s more equality in a society like this than you think (which is not untrue). But if women’s power is unofficial and men’s power is official, then the man can still take away the woman’s power any time he likes. And that’s the aspect that often gets lost while everyone’s chuckling over the chief whose wife likes to nag him into doing what she wants.
Also I’m kind of over the trope where massive, muscular and aggressive men in positions of power are treated like big babies who have to be tricked or lured into behaving like human beings.
So I was reading the book and thinking these critical thoughts about that particular ‘women have the unofficial power’ trope… and then the book pulled the rug out from under me because I had forgotten completely about the Kaliane, and the role of women in Thuril magical society.
Having teased me that they were just doing the thing of ‘look how strong these women are, they will nag their husbands and threaten to withhold soup or whatever’ version of the power behind the throne trope, the book revealed that actually, women in this society are literally the power behind the throne. And I started remembering all over again that yes, this is a very clever book.
Once the Kaliane arrives, our whole image of the Thuril society shifts radically, gaining a whole new layer of interest. Mara finally has allies who agree with her that the Assembly of Magicians in her world are terrible, and something has to be done. It’s such a relief to see her surrounded by older, more experienced women who agree with her, and might even help her—once they’ve finished running her through the gauntlet to see how serious she is, of course.
It’s also just deeply pleasant to see Mara talking to other women and opening her mind to a variety of alternative cultural norms based on what she learns from them—it feels a lot more natural than the parts of the previous book where Kevin was loudly lecturing her about how his country does equality better. I’m also glad that the narrative is never so clear cut as saying ‘Tsuranuanni is terrible—it needs to change everything’ or ‘All the other countries are worse at life choices than the Tsurani are, let’s teach them our civilised ways.’
There’s a lot more nuance going on here than I have perhaps been giving the books credit for in recent posts. But that’s why I liked the Empire trilogy so much in the first place—it’s a lot more mature in handling these topics on cultural contrast than so many other fantasy novels of the same era. Yes, David Eddings with your ‘every race has one notable characteristic and/or career path,’ I am looking at you.
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!