Welcome back to the reread of Mistress of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts.
I’ve just about recovered from squeeing about Galactic Suburbia’s Hugo win, though not recovered from the cold which meant I spent the whole ceremony swooning on a couch. Thanks everyone for your happy thoughts! Now back to Mara as she returns from her fact-finding holiday to find a whole bunch of politics waiting for her…
Summary: Mara and her party return home to the Empire under a veil of great secrecy, with the help of the cho-ja mages.
They have been travelling so quickly that she has not had a chance to reconnect to Arakasi’s network of spies except sporadically. She has learned that there is still a Great One standing sentry over the temple of the Red God of Death, awaiting her return from her fake seclusion. Mara also knows that Hokanu has politely turned down a concubine offered to him by Lady Isashani, though she knows little else about how his family business has been resolved.
As they approach her estate—the estate she and Hokanu have shared during their marriage, the new Acoma lands that formerly belonged to the Minwanabi—Mara is dizzy with joy to be home. Lujan and Kamlio stand with her, dressed up in their finery—Kamlio has finally accepted that she does not need to hide herself away in rags any longer, as her mistress will protect her from unwanted men.
As Lujan and Kamlio tease each other, however, Lujan spots that there is something wrong at the estate they are approaching by river: there, they spot an imperial messenger, which is never a good sign.
Drums sound out from the house, still a good distance from them: war has been declared.
At Mara’s order, Saric urges the rowers to work faster, bringing them more quickly into dock. In the last instant, as it becomes evident that there is an imminent attack, they unfurl the banner to reveal that they carry the Lady of the Acoma with them, and she is home.
Mara stumbles off the barge and into her husband’s arm, noting that Hokanu is wearing his battleworn, scratched armour and not his honour dress.
Hokanu quickly assures her that the children are safe in the Imperial Palace… but he has grave news to share with her. Ichindar, Light of Heaven and Emperor of Tsuranuanni, has been murdered.
Mara is devastated, at losing her adopted father and friend—but it’s the political ramifications, of course, that she has to consider now.
The Emperor had no son, so it is his young daughter, Jehilia, who will decide the fate of the Empire—whoever marries her first will take the Imperial Throne. This means that all manner of Imperial cousins will even now be battering at the walls of the Palace, trying to get to her.
Mara realises that this was Jiro of the Anasati’s plan all along—why else would he have taken such an interest in siege engines and the like?
Worst of all, it means that the place of safety where she entrusted her children—and Justin in particular, who will be a threat because he is an obvious candidate for imperial heir—is about to become a whole lot less safe.
Jiro will stop at nothing to achieve his ambition—but more to the point, he will have the opportunity to leave both the Acoma and the Shinzawai without their heirs.
In amongst the political chatter and preparation for war, Mara finds a moment to reveal to her husband that she knows now she can have no more children, and she forgives him for keeping the secret from her—she fully intends that he be able to have the son he desires.
In the war room, Mara notes that the army manouvres that Hokanu has prepared for are defensive in nature. This is not what she is looking for. She plans to attack at the Holy City, not defend against Jiro’s troops.
Everyone realises slowly that she intends to make an active bid for Justin to be the next Emperor of Tsuranuanni.
The problem is that in limiting the power of the Warlord, they have set themselves up for a worse problem, and no longer have a strong High Council capable of ratifying the change in political leader. If any other Lord takes the White and Gold at this point, they will have civil war on their hands—the only way to create a peaceful resolution is to marry Justin to Jehilia and put them on the throne together.
All the magic and warfare stuff has been pretty interesting in these books, but they really come alive when the political negotiations are at the forefront of the story.
This is the final act moving into place—the plans to replace the Emperor.
Once again, Mara is forced into a position where she has to go big or go home—and she chooses outrageous, grand-scale ambition over ducking and covering.
It’s fascinating to me that so many of Mara’s more revolutionary choices or ideas come out of a basic need for survival—but that doesn’t make her less ambitious. Is she more likeable as a character because her ambition only gets roused when she’s pushed into a corner? Would we feel as attached to her as a character if we’d seen her angling for this kind of high status career break for Justin all along?
This also makes me consider the ambitious royal mother trope that turns up so often in history—Livia and Agrippina are two of my favourite historical characters from Ancient Rome, both treated as complete villains in the literary sources of their day, because they worked hard to secure their sons (Tiberius and Nero, respectively) as Emperors.
In genre, of course, Cersei Lannister is the most obvious comparison—a woman hated by so many within the books of A Song of Ice and Fire, and also by the fans of those books. One of her most salient personality traits is ambition and the other is a fierce protectiveness of her children, whose safety is constantly threatened by the larger political movements around them…
The big difference between Cersei and Mara, from what I can see, is that Mara is good at her job. She is supremely competent in the areas she takes on, which means that even when her ambition overreaches her resources, she has a strong framework to build upon. Cersei, however, is constantly shown as failing and falling because she does not have the same competencies to balance out her opportunities.
And yet both are raised within the aristocracy and deliberately kept from the training and teaching offered to their brothers… hmm, it’s almost as if one character is set up to succeed and the other to fail, based in the needs of their authors.
More politics next week! Full steam ahead.
Tansy Rayner Roberts is an Australian fantasy author, blogger and podcaster. She won the 2013 Hugo for Best Fan Writer. Tansy recently completed a serialised novel, Musketeer Space, available to read for free on her blog, and her latest piece of published short fiction is “Fake Geek Girl” at the Australian Review of Fiction. She writes crime fiction under the pen-name of Livia Day. Come and find TansyRR on Twitter or Tumblr, sign up for her Author Newsletter, or listen to her on Galactic Suburbia!