Daughter of the Empire began the epic saga of Mara of the Acoma, illustrating her meteoric rise to power in the Machiavellian intrigues of the Tsurani court. Servant of the Empire continued that tale as Mara, Ruling Lady of her house, established herself as a skilful player in the game of the Council.
Now Mara faces not only the brotherhood of assassins, and the cunning spies of the rival ruling houses, but the awesome Assembly of Magicians, who see her as the ultimate threat to their ancient power.
Mistress of the Empire is the concluding volume in the Empire trilogy. It is a wonderfully satisfying ending to a fantastic story and one of the best fantasy series out there. It takes Mara to the height of power, but also the depth of despair and brought me to tears on several occasions. Discussing the book will of necessity provide spoilers for the previous two books, though I will strive to keep them to a minimum.
We rejoin Mara’s story about five years after the events told in Servant of the Empire. The baby she was expecting at the end of the previous book has been born a son, whom she’s named Justin and together with him, Ayaki and her new husband Hokanu she’s made a home at the former Minwanabi estate. It’s a peaceful and happy life, though not without ripples as turns out in almost the first pages of the book. Mara loses her heir, her beloved oldest son Ayaki, to an assassin’s attack as, even though the High Council has been disbanded and the Warlord’s office abolished in favour of absolute rule by the Emperor, the Great Game continues and Mara is its biggest target. From this traumatic event the Lady’s almost miraculous luck seems to fade away as events go evermore against Mara’s favour. And we’re once more thrown into the political morass that is Tsuranuanni.
The authors broaden our knowledge of the world by having Mara travel beyond the Empire’s borders and those of its neighbours into unknown territory and discovering more about the Cho-ja and their history and culture. I found this insectoid culture fascinating and the added depth only served to enrich this matriarchal society. The Cho-ja city of Chakaha and the secrets Mara unearths there are beautifully rendered and it was one of my favourite parts of this book. The concept of hive-memory – stored in a communal consciousness that will remain as long as there are living Cho-ja – with its perfect recall and what this means for a society’s development – especially the way it’s juxtaposed to humanity’s fragmentary and often manipulated sense of history – is fascinating and I loved the way Wurts and Feist employ it to further the plot.
We don’t just get a closer look at the Cho-ja; we also see more of the Assembly. While those who’ve read Magician might already be familiar with much of what we’re shown in the book, for those who haven’t it should be a welcome area of further exploration. What I enjoyed mostly is the closer look we got at familiar faces, both from the previous Empire books and from Magician. We also learn that although they proclaim to stand outside the law and to act for the good of the Empire, in fact the Assembly is just as much part of the Great Game as the nobles and much of what they do is for their own greater glory and power. But there are those who would wish a return to unstifled progress and as unobtrusively as possible support Mara’s reformist cause.
And with that word, reform, we touch on one of the key themes of this series. Mara embodies change and reform: she is a rare and unique phenomenon, a Ruling Lady in her own right. A Ruling Lady, who isn’t afraid to try some new to save the existence of her House and one who is profoundly influenced by the philosophical ideas of another culture. Mara’s open mind manages to bring down an Empire that has withstood generations of war and strife, just because no one can predict what she’ll do next. She shocks by granting mercy and allowing herself to give in to her more human emotions, but whenever she veers from the norm, that’s when she gains the most. And throughout the narrative we see her come to the realisation that what is killing her country is stagnation, in every sense. She sets herself against this and it is this that gains her her greatest enemies, Jiro of the Anasati and the Traditionalist Faction and ultimately the Assembly, whose traditionalist nature is given voice most loudly by the young Black Robe Tapek.
What rereading Mistress of the Empire has confronted me with, is my changed outlook on life now that I’m a parent. Where before Ayaki’s loss and Mara’s difficulties Mara in giving birth to a new heir made me feel sad for her, this time around these deaths killed me. I was in tears several times while reading those passages, just because I now could relate to the deep and unflinching love Mara feels for her children. Maya’s forced iron control and Hokanu’s quiet grief just broke my heart. What made these losses so profoundly interesting in the narrative was the question of how they affected Mara’s thought process and decisions. Are the actions she takes in this book those of a mother protecting the lives and future of her children or those of a Servant protecting the Empire? Or is the second only a lucky by-product in as much as it overlaps the saving of Justin and Kasuma? What is clear is that Mara is willing to sacrifice almost anyone and everything to give her children a better future. There are many deaths of beloved and faithful servants, deaths that didn’t leave me unaffected; especially the final chapter brought me to tears. There is a tragedy to Mara’s ultimate triumph that is bittersweet and once again affirms that nothing is gained without cost. Then again, the rewards of great risk are accordingly great as we witness in the cases of Lujan and Arakasi, who are rewarded in ways they wouldn’t have dreamed of when we first met them.
Mistress of the Empire is a fantastic conclusion to Mara’s story. The story is a classic that shows exactly what epic fantasy can be at its best, at once sweeping and personal. It also contains some of the most wonderful portrayals of female characters out there in epic fantasy. This reread has firmly cemented this series as one of my all-time favourites and one I’m sure I can have my girls read it in fifteen years’ time without it having lost anything due to age. If you never read anything Midkemian, read this. As for me, I need to track down some of Wurts’ solo books; if they are as good as the Empire series, I’m in for a brilliant read.
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.