Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned.
This book first entered my radar about a decade ago based on the recommendation of Gail Carriger when she guested on a podcast I listened to. It took me a few years, but I’m glad I finally got around to reading this.
This is the first novel in the Empire Trilogy, and is part of the broader Riftwar Saga. I’ve never read any of the Riftwar books before, so I came into this a blank slate. Boy was I pleasantly surprised!
If you want to read this novel, read it because of Mara. She is not a traditional action hero. No, she’s a leader of men who doesn’t get her hands dirty. She’s a politician, she’s a mother, she’s a housekeeper. She’s a traditionally feminine woman, who uses her brains and not her brawn. She’s not a rebel against the unjust patriarchy which keeps Tsuranuanni women oppressed; she takes advantages of her patriarchal society’s misconceptions of women and uses those misconceptions to manipulate and control the patriarchy. That’s what makes her special.
But for as fascinating a character Mara is, everyone else… isn’t. Mara’s the only one who has any depth. Everyone else is shallow.
Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (B)
PACING AND STRUCTURE
The story’s plot was good, and at times great, but it suffered from having an episodic structure. Basically, the story consisted of the protagonist solving one problem after another. There was never a through-line connecting all of the small episodes together in a linear fashion. The tension suffered because there was no build up to a looming threat.
- For example, in Episode 2 she recruited some Grey Warriors to her cause. At the book’s climax, those Grey Warriors never became relevant to her victory. This seemed like a dropped narrative thread.
- In Episode 3, she recruits bug people to her cause. The bug people are never seen again in the book after that chapter. That’s a dropped thread if I’ve ever seen one.
- In Episode 5 she turned down a suitor, and she made an enemy of him. At the climax, him being her enemy should have come back to haunt her. Again, a dropped narrative thread.
The book’s structure was basically whack-a-mole: Mara faces a problem, and she hits it. Another problem appears, and she hits that. Again and again, problems pop up and she beats them. There was no build up of tension caused by a problem she was too weak to defeat yet, forcing her to buy time or hold the problems at bay as she cultivated her allies.
Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (D) This is a passing grade, but a bad grade.
I liked this book’s plot. After her father’s death Mara must secure her throne, rebuild her army, secure new allies, get rich, give birth to an heir, and finally get revenge on her father’s killers- all while being careful not to step out of the bounds of traditional femininity. Basically, she has a similar plot to Circe Lannister, if Circe wasn’t evil. I liked how Mara at times came off as a little too ruthless- it made her compelling.
The plot had some clunky bits. Mara needed more try-fail cycles.
Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (A-)
I loved the setting. Tsuranuanni society is honor obsessed. And I mean OBSESSED. I loved it. Being honorable is woven into every aspect of their society, so much so that even the spies and thieves are honorable. People who are caught acting dishonorably must either run for their lives, or commit ritual suicide. Frankly, it’s so obsessed with honor as to be implausible- you have to suspend your disbelief.
This book’s society was fascinating as a result. The book was based on an Up-to-Eleven version of cliched feudal Asia, but in so many ways the setting’s uniqueness took it out of being cliched. Mara’s cunning use of her society’s obsession with honor is what allowed her to thrive and control her circumstances.
There were some weird quirks about the setting which didn’t seem to quite work (the whole concept of Grey Warriors just doesn’t hold up, and the bug-people were weird).
I give the Setting: (A)
Occasionally the prose had moments of being drop-dead gorgeous. Overall, the prose was more functional. On the stained glass/window pane glass spectrum of prose beauty (stained glass= beautiful for beauty’s sake; windowpane= clear and unobtrusive prose), I’d place it slightly on the stained glass end of the spectrum.
I give the Prose: (B)
I enjoyed this book. Check it out if you want a non-traditional female protagonist who’s willing to use her brains and not brawn to out-scheme her opponents in a highly patriarchal world. I feel as though the book had a few developmental problems caused by a lack of structure, but those problems weren’t enough to put me off.
Letter Grade: (B)
STARS: 3.5 OUT OF 5 STARS (Everything above 1 star is a passing grade)
SCALE GRADE: ABOVE AVERAGE
Overall Rating: Recommended (How I Rate Books)
Genres/Tagwords: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy, Riftwar, Empire Trilogy, Female Protagonist, Kickass Female Protagonist, Low Magic, Bug People, Honor, Politics,
- Circe, in the sense of being a semi-episodic, feminist, character based story,
Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed: