The mysterious world of Kelewan is encircled by magic, mystery and murder. Here at the heart of the Tsurani Empire, Mara, Ruling Lady of the Acoma, leads her people through terror and peril on a truly epic scale. She must contend with powerful rival houses, strike deals with sinister rebel warriors, and forge a treaty with the enigmatic Cho-ja – a race of alien insectoids. But in order to restore the honour of her house, Mara must marry the son of a deadly enemy – and carry the struggle of her people into the heart of his stronghold …
Daughter of the Empire is the first book in the Empire trilogy, which is the first trilogy in the Midkemia setting Feist co-wrote. Together with Janny Wurts, he created an amazing story chronicling the life and times of Mara of the Acoma. These three books are some of my favourites of the entire Riftwar Cycle – together with Rise of a Merchant Prince, because how can you not love Roo? – and it’s been a pleasure to return to them. Contrary to the books we’ve read so far, Daughter of the Empire is set completely on Kelewan and we spend our time immersed in Tsurani culture. It makes for a fascinating read starring a wonderful protagonist.
The star of this book and of the entire Empire trilogy is Mara. Mara is amazing. Remember all those complaints I had in the earlier books about women lacking agency? Mara wipes them all away. Whether this is due to Wurts’ influence or because Feist had grown as a writer, or a combination of the two, I don’t know, but it is a marked difference. Mara is a text book example of a woman with agency and I liked that she doesn’t just play the Game of the Council to avenge her father and brother and to protect and sustain her family and its honour, but that she realises she enjoys it as well. That the realisation there is a genuine cost to her machinations in terms of human lives and feelings follows immediately after and that she acknowledges this, but doesn’t flinch from it, made it all the more powerful. She grows through the narrative from a young, sheltered girl into a self-assured woman, which was interesting to watch. I like that the growth seemed gradual and wasn’t landmarked by big ‘events’ such as her being married of becoming a mother; Mara grows due to all of her life experiences and the passing of time; she isn’t instantly transformed by one defining event.
Her relationship with Buntokapi was somewhat problematic. Mara ends up in an abusive marriage by her own choice, which was hard to swallow; it illustrated her single -minded determination to save her family’s honour, but at the same time forces her into some despicable actions – again Mara acknowledges them and needs to deal with this – but we’re never made to see Mara as unlikeable, which I felt she was at times. It’s hard to see Mara as a victim – though she’s forced into having to make the choice to marry Bunto by circumstance – since it’s clear she’s always the one pulling the strings, even if her plans are bungled by outside circumstance. Still, despite finding her actions deeply unpleasant at times, she’s never unsympathetic and I found myself cheering at her victories.
The world-building of Kelewan was amazing. Heavily inspired by ancient Japanese culture, the Tsurani culture is an honour-based culture and very traditional. Traditionally patriarchal, women and girls don’t get to wield power other than through their husbands, unless there is no other resort. The reason Mara rises to power is because she is the last living descendant of her line. I liked that despite this we have several examples of women besides Mara, who are shown to wield their own sort of power, such as Teani and Nacoya. Additionally, there is the completely matriarchal culture of the Cho-ja, an insect-like race who live in colonies and share a hive mind, who give a view of a completely opposite culture. While very much a warrior culture – as we saw in Magician – Tsuranuanni is also a nation rife with political machinations and power plays. The twists and surprises this brought to the story were fabulous and there wasn’t a moment that I was bored in this story.
Of all the books I’ve read so far in my Midkemia Reread, Daughter of the Empire is my utter favourite. Mara is a wholly fascinating character moving through a world torn between political factions and tradition. Needless to say, it holds up really well, even twenty years after its original publication and after numerous rereads. Even if you’re not interested in reading any of the other Midkemia books, this is one book you need to read. It’s the start of one of the best fantasy trilogies out there and should be part of the canon of fantasy.
This review is part of my Midkemia Reread, in which I read all the books Raymond E. Feist wrote, set in the world of Midkemia. For more on the why and how of this series of reviews, check out Midkemia Reread: An Introduction.