Thursday, March 29, 2012

Daughter of the Empire

Welcome to my new tradition: reviewing books off my usual beaten path if there's a fifth Thursday in a given month. These are things that I read years ago or have been meaning to read since high school, older stuff that does something different. Normally I like to stay within the past decade to up your odds of seeing it on the shelves next time you hit the bookstore, but it's definitely worth trying to hunt down some of the older stuff, in part because it's not so bogged down in contemporary trends. This week I'm reviewing Daughter of the Empire, a book I read for the first time when I was twelve or thirteen and studiously ignoring everyone else in my cabin at summer camp. There aren't really any spoilers here that aren't in the text on the back of the book, but I do occasionally go into more detail than that.

The quick and dirty:
Rating: 4 stars
Publication: May 1, 1988 from Spectra 
Premise: Mara of the Acoma is beginning a ceremony to take religious vows and renounce the outside world when a messenger arrives to tell her that her father and brother are dead, leaving her as the sole heir of her House. The most powerful House in the empire arranged their deaths, and unless she can navigate the tangled intrigues in the Great Game of the Council, she, along with her house's history and advisers, will be next. Though tradition is the cornerstone of her people's safety and honor, she must learn to bend it for good if she has any hope of survival.  
Warnings: Non-graphic sexual violence (pain, bruises, and minor hitting). This encounter isn't technically rape in context, but in some ways the dynamic is similar. 
Recommendation: While it's not the pinnacle of perfection that my younger self remembered it being, this one is a still a great read with a protagonist who gets pulled into things sideways and then earns every victory that she finds.  

Why this one is fascinatingly different:

Female protagonists who get through an entire book in this genre without a love interest are few and far between, but for Mara it's absolutely convincing. She trusts Keyoke and Papeweio, military leaders and bodyguards who have been with the family since before she was born, but her eventual marriage is a cold-blooded political maneuver that scares her to death. The moments of affection that twine through it really work because she respects his better qualities and the man he could have been, but there are no strong arms to hold and help her, and the book is much stronger for it. Arakasi, the man who becomes her spymaster, hates the House that killed her family as much as she does; his experience paired with her commitment make for a powerful team. Nacoya, Mara's nurse and adviser, often muses that Mara shares her plans with absolutely no one once people owe loyalty to Bunto as Lord, and that loneliness ups the tension; Mara can seek general advice, but the execution has to be her own, and her youth can lead her into trouble there.

One of Mara's early coups comes when she hears of the hatching of a new cho-ja queen and goes to negotiate for the privilege of having the hive on her own land. The cho-ja make a strong counterpoint to the Tsurani, setting up a different system of thought that manages to coexist in remarkable harmony. They want territory and goods made of things like hide, and in return they protect their home area as warriors and provide luxury goods. Mara's negotiations with them take place underground in yet another example of her creativity and intuition paying off; no one else has ever been down into one of the hives, but she takes a chance and ends up being welcomed as a guest. The trip through the hive is one of the most lushly detailed sequences in the book. It conveyed the sense of an alien-but-friendly culture well, though they could have been developed more after the rich introduction sequence in their hive; the young queen and one of the hive members start to grow as characters in mere pages, so they could have been brilliant. They turn up again in more detail later on in the trilogy, though not for another book and a half.

At any rate, it's great to see Mara be young and impulsive enough to make mistakes that make her advisers necessary. She was raised to be to be a noble's wife, not to rule herself, which makes facing up to necessity hard. When Nacoya suggests that she has to marry to gain the protection of a more powerful House, she lashes out against the suggestion and refuses to consider it at all for quite a while. She finally does take the step, but does so in an oddly naive way; she's afraid of sex and refuses to summon someone of the Reed Life (this world's geishas) to help teach her before going into the arms of a brutal drunkard. Instead of going after any number of attractive noble sons, she picks the son of an enemy with a reputation for roughness and low intelligence. Mara does nothing at all by half-measures, and that approach leads to both her greatest successes and her greatest pain.

It's rare to see books that try for a Asian-esque culture without falling into the Mulan trap of nonstop tea ceremonies and samurai and honor everywhere, but this book really nails it. Yes, honor is an important part of society, but it's much more about duty and the safety of your House than it is about personal respect; that's assumed to follow from the way you play the Game of the Council with honor and elegance. Honor can trap you into committing suicide for stepping across one of the more important lines, and we see even otherwise distasteful characters stepping up to that duty when it becomes necessary. It lends a certain sympathy and dignity to both the individual characters and society as a whole, especially when the success of Mara's plans hinges on the integrity of someone with no reason except honor or integrity to do what she wants. The honor of someone's House means something and isn't just a token or excuse, and that really puts the cap on the medieval Japanese flavor of this society.

Moments of honor addt of depth to Buntokapi, the husband who Mara married out of necessity. She went into it coldly because marrying him would neutralize the threat that his house posed to hers, and removing the second-greatest enemy would allow her to more efficiently pursue the blood feud against the greatest threat. He's abusive and clearly holds her in contempt for being a woman, but he also really shines as a warrior on the battlefield and when circumstances call for him to uphold his honor. At one point when Mara has just set him up, he's thinking that she's beautiful and untouchable because he simply doesn't know how to deal with her; while it does nothing to excuse him hitting her on their wedding night, it does a lot to make these characters feel like people. Bunto isn't wholly a villain, and Mara's machinations put too much blood on her hands for her to be innocent again. 

Many of the other minor characters also work well. Keyoke is a fairly stiff beacon of honor, but his second Papewaio is surprisingly playful even in the midst of serious moments. He's no rebel against tradition, but he's willing and happy to follow Mara's innovations on that front. Nacoya is a note-perfect old woman; she's been around the block fifty or so times and has seen everything. It certainly doesn't hurt that she practically raised Mara, putting her in the position of a mother surrogate, nurse, teacher, scolder-in-chief, and adviser. Mentor figures like her normally die early to make some asinine point, but Nacoya just....carries on, and it's lovely. They're all somewhat reserved, in keeping with the culture, but their emotions certainly shine through anyway.

The Game of the Council itself is also quite well done; the Houses are in a constant state of flux, balancing against each other with wealth and age and honor. The Houses are further complicated by political parties, which fluctuate quickly, and by clans, which are based on ancestral ties so old that people can barely track them; however, most of these tangles are implied or briefly mentioned. It's a nice touch that gives you a sense of how hard it is to predict which way allies will jump, but it backs off without word-vomiting an attempt at explaining it all. 

A surprising amount is allowed in these disputes; staging assassination attempts or even full-blown raids against an enemy who shows some trace of weakness is perfectly acceptable. Despite this, the rules are tight in other places; while killing someone is just a sign that they should have planned better, killing that person under your roof destroys your honor. Clothes and the order of greetings and equally small details all play a part, and simply walking into the right room with enough confidence can make alliances swing in your direction almost immediately. The way these nobles smile to each other's faces while thinking that death might add spice to the afternoon is chilling, but the victories really do show why Mara is addicted to the Game as soon as she's made one first good move.

The red pen:

When I was in middle school I didn't really notice the hammer-force telling that runs through the book, but it's obnoxiously obvious this time around. Sometimes it happens with emotions, like in the first chapter where Mara realizes that she's about to hear that her family is dead: "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." At other times, like when she's thinking about how dangerous it is to give up power even though it's necessary, we get to listen to her explain the rights of a ruling husband in five different places before the wedding even gets there. This is especially disappointing because the authors already do a good job showing all this. Mara's mourning ceremony is truly touching, and she has several moments of wanting to take the reins for her soldiers or households before catching herself up short as she remembers that she can't anymore. The contrast seems like red paint scrawled over a delicate ink drawing, with stiffness marring the flowing lines.

The way the culture holds together most of the time makes it more obvious when it doesn't, and the bad is....unpleasant. When one of Mara's servants comes to her to confess that he can't feel sorrow for the death of a superior he hated (that she helped cause), she reacts as follows: "her conscience might sting for her deed, but she felt none of the tortures of cultural loyalty displayed by the man before her. In an analytical vein, she wondered whether this diminished her spirit." A lack of subtlety is one thing, but hammer-to-face statements like that make it hard to stay immersed in Mara's project of bending the letter of tradition while still respecting its spirit. That effort really does shine in places, but even a few scenes like this one do a lot to undermine the delicate conflict that Feist and Wurts are trying to sustain.

Similarly, the alternate points of view don't work very well. We're fairly far into the book before we get into anyone else's head, and the fit is honestly very awkward. The scenes are obviously those that need to happen out of Mara's sight, which means that we get to zoom away from her at tense moments to hear the other half of whatever plan is going on. I read the rest of the trilogy after this, and the second book does this so much better. We get to see the head of the Minwanabi plotting with his advisers, see their own internal intrigues and power struggles and misgivings, and that adds balance to the narrative. On some level it works well for the reader to walk into the later tense confrontations with as little knowledge as Mara, but in that case I'd really rather have seen absolutely no other points of view until that last arc. Having a scene or two chucked in near the middle to do sort of a loyalty nose-count just sits there in an uninteresting lump.

Most of the intrigue works well, but one of the big turning points in the book falls into place a little too conveniently. I do like that Mara works by being underestimated and manipulating people's emotions over time, but in this one case her plan gets a bit too convenient at the end. Getting Bunto focused on his selfish pursuits instead of the estate works brilliantly, especially when she pushes too hard at one point and nearly ruins everything; it's a long game and a realistic one, frustrating her every step of the way. And then the opportunity to provoke him into saying something rude about important people so that she can later quote him out of context to their faces arises, and he just....walks right into it, complete with a "and you can tell him I sad so" at the end of his rant. Yes, some of it works, but given that she is planning to tell the person in question what he said, it's too obvious and clumsy. The smoothest strategic maneuver of the book and her genius both deserve better.  

All in all, it's a little less complicated and perfect than I remembered, but it still makes for a fascinating read on quite a few levels. This book is different, pure and simple, and I admire it a lot for being willing to take the risks to make that happen. You can find fantasy books about intrigue as a tool to advance military or economic objectives anywhere, but seeing every form of attack as a tool to gain status and influence for their own sake is nicely unusual.

Prospects: The third book in the trilogy, Mistress of the Empire, came out in 1993, and Feist is still writing Midkemia books. Kelewan, home of the Tsurani, is on one side of a Rift between worlds, and the land of the Midkemian barbarians is on the other. Mara's father and brother died on the other world, but beyond that initial trigger there's not much about Midkemia in this one, though there is later on and in Feist's series. I think that they were fun (and in some cases glorious) right up until Talon of the Silver Hawk, which I finished through sheer force of will, but your mileage may vary.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~The Initiate Brother by Sean Russell. This one packs just as much intrigue and cultural worldbuilding, with far more fights. That's arguably at the cost of fluid characterization, but it's so beautifully intricate that it almost didn't matter.
~Magician: Apprentice by Raymond Feist. The writing is a touch rough, but the concepts and characters really shine. Feist has a gift for making realistic characters that get away with larger-than-life adventures; "swashbuckling" wouldn't be a bad word for a lot of them. Start here and keep reading in publication order until you get bored.  
~Kushiel's Dart. Yes, I know there are plenty of strong opinions about this one, but it's startlingly similar to Daughter of the Empire in structure and general arc. Both the lead (a courtesan-spy) and the primary antagonist are women caught up in intrigue on an international scale, and watching the lead struggle to grasp the game when she wasn't prepared to play is reminiscent of Mara's journey. 

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