Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Daughter of the Empire by RE Feist and Janny Wurts

Some reviews, it is easy to know where to start. Others, it is hard. Sometimes, that's because there's no obvious handle to grab on to. Others, like this one, there are too many. In which case, I'll try and start simply (not my strong point)

Daughter of the Empire is a politics-heavy coming of age fantasy story centered around Mara of the Acoma, a young Tsurani noblewoman. When treachery on the battlefield reduces her family to just her, she is thrust unprepared into the role of Ruling Lady, responsible for the survival of her family's name and retainers in a cutthroat world where the Game of the Council and the appearance of honour is all.

Many readers will have immediately thought of a few comparisons. Scaled-down Song of Ice and Fire. Shared DNA with The Traitor Baru Cormorant and The Goblin Emperor (far, far apart as those two may be in tone). Young, underprepared rulers engaged in politics mightn't be a dominant strand in fantasy but it gets its fair share of attention. I don't know how true this was when published for Daughter of the Empire (I was one at the time) but at least in the context of when I read it, it was rare for that. It was also rare for having a female lead and an East Asian setting (more on that latter). Again, these are no longer rare things. Daughter of the Empire would have never got the status it did if it wasn't good in its own right but when doing this re-read, I was curious about how it held up in a different genre context. 

One element that immediately felt dated was the unruffled, leisurely pace of the start followed by a lengthy lecture/info dump to Mara. This, combined with the omniscient PoV, should immediately date the document for most readers. I can't say I objected, and think it smart thematically given how Mara starts the book intent on taking religious vows and that her calm contemplative world will be shattered into one she doesn't understand, but have to admit I'm not sure I'd be quite so happy if this was the first time I ever read the book.

Once the story finishes its limbering stretches though, it still stands up rather well. The bulk of it is taken up by Mara's daring stratagems and relationships with her small circle of advisers, or to put it another way, the bulk of the book is carried by Mara. She's an admirable heroine, all desperate bravery beneath a mask of complete composure, with plenty of wit, compassion and a dollop of humour to round things off. She's not possessed of incredible depth and complexity, and the why of her character could be more explored, but she's fun. She's easy to root for. If your son brought her home, you'd have a quiet word with him at some point urging him not to mess this one up.

The rest of the characters are of a similar ilk. They're pleasant (or nasty as might be), possessed of a couple of key traits, but not much more. The only real exception is Buntokapi, but he's not truly delved into. Narcoya's waspish bluntness and Lujan's ready charm get most of the good lines, but I can't imagine anybody thinking about naming their children after them (even allowing for cultural barriers).

However, they don't need to be strong. The strength of this book is in its plotting and readability. Even after multiple re-reads I enjoyed the twists and turns of Mara's plots, and the consternation of her enemies when they realise just how they've been had. The pages flew by. It's not a deep keep you thinking book, but it is a strong keep you absorbed book. In that regard it hasn't aged at all and if anything, is aided by the easily understood nature of its characters.

The worldbuilding is a lot more in-depth than the characters, a fact that might have something to do with its provenance. Feist was in the habit of sourcing his worlds from his gaming groups and in the case of Kelewan, didn't know the GM had cribbed it very directly from MAR Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne. That lawsuit was settled out of court but that doesn't affect the world, which shows all the signs of having once been in the hands of someone who knew it inside out. Does it stand comparisons with the many east Asian settings written by those to whom it is part of their culture? As someone with a limited understanding, yes. But then I'm not here for authenticity. What I can say though, is it shows all the signs of being written by someone who respected and admired the cultures of East Asia. Even if that person wasn't Feist.

Oddly enough, I wish this sort of thing happened more often. I'm a big fan of collaborations, and people using their respective strengths to create something bigger than the whole. This is what happened here. I'd love to know more about Feist's and Wurts' process here and who contributed what because, as someone who knows more about Feist's work than Wurts, it feels very Feist and I'm not sure I can spot Wurts' input other than making sure Mara felt believably feminine. 

That, however, is academic interest. The most important thing is how it reads. Some elements of Daughter of the Empire feel dated and may put off more modern readers, but I think for most, this intrigue-heavy page turner will still be an enjoyable read. It seems that plugging well-known but not hugely famous works from the 80s/90s is becoming my thing and in this case, it is thoroughly well deserved.


  1. ...I didn't know this about Feist. This explains so much, not least why I was bored senseless by Magician as the first half felt like a Dragonlance knock off. I still have no memory of the rest of that trilogy, although I recall I was fond of the Serpentwar books - and I loved the Empire books. Rather sad to hear that was ripped off someone else's work, sheesh.

    Both he and Janny have commented on the collaborative process over the years - it does sound very shared and organic; I think I'd always assumed he sort of spun it off to her, but not the case at all.



    1. Ooh, thanks. Looks like a lot of good stuff on the GR link

      Serpentwar would go on my list of underappreciated series. I enjoyed the original trilogy but I can see the generic thing, but Serpentwar had a pretty refreshing take on things. It makes me sad that Feist seemed to ignore most of the non-Pug/Nakor stuff he introduced there in the next series.

    2. Yeah, if I was going to revisit Feist (chances are low on that, but you never know) it would be Serpentwar. I stopped buying him after those - not as a conscious decision, he just slipped off my reading / buying list I guess as authors sometimes do (see also: Terry Brooks)

    3. You picked wisely. Conclave of Shadows is fun and with value but I think its missing something - after that, the series just goes full gonzo and has some appalling editing in places. The ratio of awesome moments to overpowered D&D campaign aren't high enough. I have a huge yen for fantasy written from this 80s/90s crop of authors and I still can't recommend it.

      And yeah, Brooks slipped off mine with Scion of Shannara.