Welcome back to the reread of Mistress of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts.
Last week, Jiro was riding high on his way towards the Holy City of Kentosani as Mara struggled to catch up. This chapter is brought to you by the sound of Monty Python coconuts, clacking in the distance…
SUMMARY: Jiro of the Anasati lounges in his fancy silk-draped travellin’ litter, enjoying the fact that he is ahead of the game. And indeed, the Game. Hokanu of the Shinzawai is still two days away from the Holy City, whereas Jiro should be there before sundown. Mara’s army are distracting the Magicians by attacking Jiro’s own troops in the south, making him look completely innocent.
Everything is awesome, basically. And yet… Jiro can’t help the nagging feeling that it’s all about to go horribly wrong.
Chumaka tries to reassure him, but their worst fears are confirmed when scouts find one of their messengers with an arrow in his back. What information can he have had that was so important that the enemy broke protocol to kill a messenger?
[even more ominous chords, followed by the unmistakeable but highly foreign sounds of lots of horses click-clacking towards them at high speed]
All of a sudden, they find themselves under attack—by Hokanu’s forces. You guys, the cavalry has arrived! They’re doing it Midkemian style, on horseback.
Turns out Jiro’s Force Commander, Omelo, has some experience fighting against Midkemian cavalry, but the same can’t be said for the soldiers under his command, so the Anasati forces are quickly crushed and scattered.
Only five minutes earlier, Jiro had been bitching about having to travel in armour because of the current security threat—now he has reason to be thankful for it. No time for dramatic irony now! Jiro climbs out of litter to draw his sword and fight—and finds himself staring up at Hokanu of the Shinzawai, on horseback. Staring death in the eye from a very unfortunate vantage point, Jiro decides that being cut to bits by a sword blade doesn’t seem so honourable in practice as it does in theory. He turns tail and runs away.
Hokanu dismounts and pursues Jiro into the forest. After he disarms Jiro, the Lord of the Anasati tries to whine that killing an unarmed man is dishonourable. Hokanu promptly discards his sword and beats Jiro with his bare hands.
Jiro was hoping for a bit of a wrestle, thinking he would have the advantage, but Hokanu has other ideas—he wants to ensure Jiro gets the most dishonourable death possible, and he just happens to have a good bit of stranglin’ rope available.
Hokanu strangles Jiro to death. It’s deeply satisfying.
As soon as Jiro is dead, the POV of the scene switches to Chumaka. How is he going to get out of this one? Will he ever get to find out the name of his spymastering nemesis? Will he die here in the forest?
Chumaka, you will be shocked to hear, is a survivor. He quietly gives Omelo some advice—to ensure his own death by a blade right now, or else join Chumaka in hoping really hard that Mara’s habit of forgiving her enemy’s staff and offering them jobs will extend to them.
Oh Chumaka, you wily devil, you. This is the most convoluted attempt at a job interview I’ve ever seen!
The risk of this plan, of course, is that Mara herself may not survive the current drama in the Assembly. Chumaka is willing to bet on her survival, with their help. Omelo decides he can’t risk it, as no woman could possibly have the luck she will need to win. He kills himself by the sword.
Aww, Omelo. Chumaka has been paying way more attention to the book so far. You should have listened to him.
The Magicians turn up to the battle, too late to make a difference—Tapek is furious that another House has been lost due to Mara’s shenanigans, while his much more reasonable colleague Kerolo notes that Hokanu was justified in killing Jiro, considering that whole thing where Jiro had his Dad assassinated.
Tapek’s anti-Mara campaign will not be thwarted by logic or reason!
Kerolo notes that the House of Anasati may not be lost—Jiro might have died without a male heir, but surely there are a few female cousins who might take up the mantle.
Tapek loses his mind at this point, because COME ON, do they need another Mara?
[I love that he assumes all teenage aristocratic women have the potential in them to become revolutionary, Empire-eating political wolves. Surprisingly feminist of you, Tapek.]
Kerolo doesn’t see what Tapek is panicking about—Jiro’s death, as far as he’s concerned, means that the Threat Level has dropped to Meh.
Tapek is infuriated by life, by Mara, and by the outrageous suggestion that they take their information to committee yet again, because he has no faith in the Assembly to (a) make a decision within a reasonable space of time and (b) agree with him that someone needs to set fire to Mara and toast marshmallows.
Kerolo leaves Tapek to have a tantrum in the forest on his own because, mate, get over yourself. There’s bureaucracy to be done.
COMMENTARY: One of the aspects of the Empire trilogy that is most interesting to me is the longterm portrayal of culture clash between the Tsurani Empire and the Midkemian Empire—how coming into contact with aliens has changed them, and the idea that those who embrace the change rather than fighting it are going to be better off. Progress is ours! Epic fantasy is so often critiqued for being about preserving and romanticising the status quo of regressive societies, but this is a great example of the genre celebrating social and technological change.
It’s clever, because the Empire trilogy is never about the conflict between Midkemia and Tsuranuanni—that belongs to another book, and those scenes generally happen off stage—it’s about the political and social repercussions of two different cultures learning from each other, whether it’s adapting to a foreign technology or questioning the central tenets of their faith.
Mara’s advantage has always been that she is willing to explore new and different ideas—even if she struggles with some concepts at times. The reason she is such an interesting character is because she is an instigator and supporter of the kind of epic, revolutionary change on which history is built.
There’s a reason that so many history classes revolve around the various revolutions—the Agrarian and Industrial in particular. Change is inherently more interesting than stagnation.
It doesn’t hurt that in fiction, a character with a positive goal is more interesting (generally) than one with a negative goal—trying to create, build or achieve something is generally more fun to read about than trying to maintain the status quo.
Mara is always the central character in this trilogy (and it’s so, so rare to have epic fantasy revolve like this around a single female character who is also the protagonist) and the story always comes back to her. Part of what makes her so epic and important is the effect she has on others—we see how Lujan, Arakasi, Kamlio, Keyoke and the others have all blossomed under her encouragement.
Sometimes the supporting cast are working towards the same goals from their own direction—it’s pretty clear that Hokanu’s influences in taking on cavalry as a concept include his brother as well as his wife. But it’s interesting to see the ripple effect as Mara’s way of challenging the Tsurani status quo spreads out to her allies.
Also, it’s super cool when Hokanu rides down Jiro and beats him into submission. I like to re-imagine it in slow-mo. Repeatedly.
I had actually completely forgotten that Jiro is defeated here, in combat and by Hokanu’s hand, rather than the usual ‘by Mara and also, politics’ method for the main villains. Turns out, after all this build up, that Jiro of the Anasati wasn’t this season’s Big Bad at all. Tapek is now Mara’s most dangerous enemy.
Tansy Rayner Roberts is an Australian SF & fantasy author, and a Hugo Award winning blogger and podcaster. 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!