Favourite Fantasy Books Part 2: Daughter of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts
This is a series of posts about fantasy novels that I love, or loved, and that really got me into fantasy. Some of them have not really stood the test of time, some I grew out of, and others are still great. But all of them fed into how I came to love fantasy and how I perceive the genre.
Following on from Magician, one of the books that really captured my interest as a young reader of fantasy was Daughter of the Empire by Janny Wurts and Raymond E. Feist. Admittedly I picked it up because it was related to the Riftwar books, but to be honest I was captivated when I started reading it. This is the first book of a trilogy that spans a time period slightly off-set but related to the first trilogy of Feist’s Riftwar.
Set on Kelewan and in the Empire of the Tsurani, the book concerns the life of young Mara of the Acoma, the last remaining member of the Acoma clan, following the betrayal and death of her father and brother during the Riftwar on Midkemia. She is pulled from a convent just before taking holy orders to assume control of her family’s holdings. Her political enemies think her an untried and weak ruler, without experience, an army, or powerful allies to protect her. What follows is an epic fantasy unlike any I had read at that point. It was just as arresting and immersive as the quests and adventures I had read, but with a female protagonist, and a story more focused on political manoeuvring, I was confronted with a type of story I was unfamiliar with. Additionally, it was from the perspective of the ‘enemy’ of Feist’s first book, so I was fascinated by a glimpse at the ‘Other’ as the normal point of view. This book, more than many high literary texts I studied later in life, did more for my appreciation and understanding of multiple perspectives and re-evaluating my own personal cultural bias because it challenged me to read another culture as the norm and see the analogue of my own culture as the alien. For a young reader this was a heady mix.
Mara herself was a fascinating character. Unlike the female action heroes of fantasy I had previously encountered, she wasn’t a warrior princess, or an action assassin, or any type of powerful mage or magic user, she was a smart, resourceful and iron-willed character who was willing to think her way out of situations and make incredible personal sacrifices to ensure the survival of her family, her house, and her clan’s legacy. Admittedly, Wurts and Feist use a young, inexperienced character as the point of view for the reader to introduce us to the world and help us explore the culture, and this undoubtedly helped me get a grip on the arresting strangeness of Kelewan. But the fact that they chose a native Tsurani as the point of view, and not a Midkemian, did a lot to make the world and story more interesting and immersive. Yet the most arresting thing about Mara’s journey, and this is hard to say without sounding incredibly sexist and ill-informed, was that it felt to the younger me like a ‘female story’. It wasn’t about idealised masculine conflict. It wasn’t about grand battles and martial conflict, although there are certainly some great action scenes and fights that take place. It was a story that focused on the trials and challenges facing a woman in a man’s world. It focused on the often times brutal decisions that Mara had to make, and it showed that a hero could be more than someone who could sling a spell or swing a sword. Some of the scenes I loved were those in which Mara exploited the misconceptions of the male nobles who consistently underestimated her and saw her as a pretty, naïve, girl to be exploited. It was brilliant to watch her manipulate their flaws and egos to gain any advantage she could to try to consolidate her incredibly precarious position. So regardless of whether or not this was a ‘female story’ I was hooked and couldn’t put the book down. From that moment on I stopped thinking about what was a boy book or a girl book, and just went in search of writing and stories that interested me, challenged me, and brought me something new.
Mara is also a character that makes mistakes, some that have pretty brutal repercussions, but it is a strength of her character that she admits and owns these, learns from them and moves on. They aren’t brushed to the side. They aren’t ignored. And she doesn’t just blithely carry on, but takes them on board. With so many young ruler characters in fantasy, it was great to see one stumble, fall, and then pick themselves up and learn not to make that mistake again. To see the character actually weigh decisions, weigh the appearance of those decisions and consider multiple view points. For example, Mara’s former nurse Nacoya is a shrewd woman and one of Mara’s most trusted servants, but due to her position as Mara’s former nurse, Mara has to be aware of how their relationship can be viewed by external parties and the rest of her court. She can’t afford to be seen as a weak girl deferring to the wisdom of her former wet nurse, even if it is good advice, because it would weaken her public persona and standing. So the developing and shifting relationships between Mara and her court of advisors and former mentors is a fascinating angle and story thread that runs through the entire novel.
Of course there are some other characters in the story that catered to my boyish need for sword swinging, wise-cracking, cool fantasy ‘dudes’ with the grey warrior Lujan, Keyoke the grizzled veteran, Papewaio the body guard, and Arakasi the spy-master. I had a special love of Arakasi because again he was smart and canny and didn’t rely on physical strength so much as his intelligence and his wits. He was like James Bond, only cooler because he wasn’t an ass. There was so much in this book that defied my expectations about fantasy heroes and it is one of the reasons I loved it so much.
It was also eye-opening to me at that tender age as it deliberately depicted marital rape and domestic abuse from the victim’s perspective without shying away from the horror of it, or the brutality of the violence and the terror that accompanied it. This might not have been the central thrust of the story, but it was an integral part of Mara’s journey, and it was never used flippantly or as an excuse for motivation. The story also depicted vicious assassination attempts that were stripped bare of the glamour and the action gloss that previous fantasy novels had sold me on. These assassins weren’t anti-heroes, or ‘cool’ quip-dropping heroes, they were cold, pitiless murderers. As a result, a significant number of the deaths in this novel rocked me, even when they were of practically nameless characters. Death in this book was an ever present danger that stalked Mara and her people, and it felt real, tangible, and frightening. That tension permeated the entire story. The story also illustrated the naked greed, evil, and calculating coldness of ambition, and revenge without needing to evoke a massively powerful supernatural bad guy or crazy evil-for-evil’s-sake madman villain. The enemies Mara faced were all the more frightening and sinister because of their humanity and believability.
But at its heart it is a story about triumphing over adversity and the most merciless of circumstances. For all of the darkness in the book, there was a core that focused on the struggle to survive and protect those you love and care for. That honour and loyalty, when applied judiciously and not just in terms of rote formula, are true principles that represent some of the best aspects of the human condition. That it is not just about doing the right thing, nor the thing that society says is good, but using your brain and your wits to find the best path for everyone, not just yourself. And it is also about challenging systemic and cultural bias and injustice that should not be overlooked no matter how deeply it is immersed in tradition. For younger me, I just hadn’t read anything quite like it.
I had mentioned before that the setting of Kelewan owes more than a little to M.A.R. Barker’s Tékumel, but as I had yet to read it, the world of Kelewan felt innovative and original to me. I had become so used to pseudo-medieval or Renaissance Western European settings, that this Orientalised world was a wonderful breath of fresh air. Looking back now, there are certain aspects that make me cringe a little in terms of cultural appropriation, the early covers with their white-washed, blonde haired Mara being an aspect of that, but I think that part of that is a growing awareness in this day and age of the importance of culture, and of the delicacy that authors not of that culture should treat the setting. I should also say that I don’t think that either Feist or Wurts deliberately misappropriated cultural heritage, and in fact many of the aspects of the Empire depicted, in part due to challenging the norms and perspective established in Magician et al, are actually more balanced and nuanced than they are given credit for. The setting and story really challenged me in terms of what I expected from a fantasy novel. The general dearth of active magic, quests, dragons and the other trappings I had come to expect made me question what were the key elements that make up fantasy. Because this book was undoubtedly fantasy.
Now, I could be entirely wrong about this, and I certainly have no evidence to back up the following point, but I was always under the impression that Wurts was the driving force behind this story and was the main author, with Feist taking a co-credit due to the setting and perhaps some plot points. In part I thought this because Mara was such a well written character that I doubted Feist wrote her, given the examples of the female characters in his earlier trilogy. But because of this belief I started hunting out Janny Wurts books as a new author to follow and read. So regardless of what the division of labour was in Daughter of the Empire, I have it to thank for introducing me to Wurts’ books. So not only did this book inform on how I approached ‘alieness’ and otherness, sexism and gender stereotyping, and how I thought of the genre as a whole, it also introduced me to a new author who has been worth following all these years later.
Daughter of the Empire remains one of my favourite fantasy books. While I loved and always will love Magician, Daughter offered me something that was truly new and opened up a new vista on the possibilities of fantasy.