‘A voice rang out. ‘We seek the Lady of the Acoma!’
The Lady of the Acoma. Like a cold knife plunged into the pit of her stomach, the words cut through Mara’s soul. That one sentence forever changed her life.’
Way back when I first started this blog, I posted a review of Raymond E. Feist’s amazing Riftwar Saga, and was recommended in the comments to check out the Empire Trilogy that he had co-written with fellow fantasy author Janny Wurts. Well, over a year later and I’ve finally made a start on this series, and I really wish I had gotten to it sooner!
Daughter of the Empire is set on the world of Kelewan (the world that existed on the other side of the rift in the Riftwar Saga), and revolves around the ruthless ‘Game of the Council’, the dangerous political landscape that all the noble families in Kelewan must navigate. Mara, the 17 year old daughter of the Lord of the Acoma and part of one of the greatest families in Kelewan, is preparing to swear her life into the servitude of the goddess Lashima when she hears the devastating news of her father and brother’s death at the hands of their greatest rival, the Minwanabi family. Now the Ruling Lady of a failing house, she has to join the Game of the Council and fight to win back her family honour and secure their future, or else face the complete annihilation of her ancient house.
One of the things I liked most about this book was the main character Mara, who considering I criticised the rather two-dimensional female characters in the Riftwar Saga, was an incredibly strong female lead (perhaps co-writing with a woman helped with this?). Whilst at the beginning she is an unsure, and understandably grief-stricken young girl, it soon becomes evident that she is naturally extremely clever and capable, and will grow to be a proficient ruler. Also, whilst the Tsurani culture is steeped in tradition and the need to retain honour, Mara is enough of a forward-thinker and willing enough to bend tradition to survive – for example she manages to bolster her flagging army by recruiting Grey Warriors (soldiers from houses obliterated in the Game of the Council – considered to be men without honour because they didn’t die with their masters) to her cause, a feat never attempted by anyone else.
Her advisors and friends are also an interesting set of characters. Her former nurse and now First Advisor Nacoya is entertaining, as despite Mara’s new status, she still in many ways treats her like a child, fussing around her and telling her off. Keyoke and Papawaio, as her greatest warriors are perfect examples of the traditional Tsurani warriors who are willing to die at a moment’s notice for their mistress and her honour, although I also liked Lujan, leader of the Grey Warriors, with his irreverent and often inappropriate sense of humour.
The world of Kelewan, which I remembered vaguely from the Riftwar Saga, was also incredibly interesting, and unlike anything I’d ever come across in fantasy before. In many ways, it’s a very cruel and unethical world: for example the keeping of slaves is still the norm, and they are not considered to be people at all, but are men without souls. Also the way they regard honour as of greater importance than life is very extreme: one of the instances of this that sticks with me most is at the start when Papawaio saves Mara from an assassin, but in doing so enters the sacred Acoma contemplation glade and as such begs permission to commit ritual suicide. The death of Mara’s father and brother could also have been avoided if they hadn’t insisted on keeping their family’s honour intact as they rode out to their certain deaths with most of their army.
It’s in this way Tsuranni warfare is just as likely to be fought at a party, as out on a battlefield. The strict sense of decorum they must observe when interacting with other houses is such that a slip-up may result in them being sentenced to death. This psychological warfare is never so clear as in the tense climax of the novel, in which Mara is forced by honour to attend a celebration of the Warlord at her mortal enemy’s (the Minwanabi) home.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book, perhaps even more than I enjoyed the Riftwar Saga. The level of intrigue and tension created by the strained political atmosphere makes for a gripping read, and I loved the strong protagonist Mara, who against the odds fights to restore the House of Acoma to it’s former glory. I can’t wait to read the next book!