Non-prompt related post today because I spent all my time writing/reading Darkspell. Imyril, if you're reading this, I have so many thoughts. I also nearly caught to everybody else on The Goblin Emperor too. These are not the books this review is about. This is review is for Servant of the Empire and before I go on, I have some framing thoughts.
It is a truth commonly recognised but voice best by Sergeant Angua in Feet of Clay that everybody's got to have somebody to look down on. The dwarves and trolls have each other, the undead have the golems, and fantasy readers have romance readers.
Honestly, I think that is a big part of the wide animus against romance that suffuses so much of the genre. We can't pick on the Sci-Fi fans because they're us, the Crime guys are cool, but Romance? Easy targets. And there are of course other reasons, some of them overtly sexist, some of them the product of deep buried sexism, many of them probably weird, and a few even based somewhat on straight up literary taste. One complaint that always stuck with me was someone remarking how they disliked the romance plot in one of McCaffrey's books as it turned the heroine from a tough, remarkable woman into a simpering idiot. This statement is going to be rather pertinent here. And that's why -
We Need To Talk About Kevin.
Kevin is the Midkemian slave who is brought by our heroine Mara and ends up having a torrid romance with her. So far so good. She deserves some happiness.
He is also the source of all good ideas, unravels centuries of Tsurani tradition with but a single question, never causes a serious mistake by wrong, is wanted by all women, and is the biggest badass in the book. Which, depending on what you want, is possibly less good. Possibly it's even better.
Where the issue lies for me is what it means for Mara's story as she goes from fearless source of ingenuity to frequent fool and defender of bad traditions. It's not cool and while I knew going into this re-read I'd have something to say about it, I wasn't expecting to feel so badly about it. It affected my story enjoyment. Something that didn't bother me so much but will bother others a lot are the overtones of the western cultured-Midkemian Kevin being the other to go around pointing out all the bad things the Tsurani do. Does the storyline make sense? Yes. Is it the only way it could be done? No. Would doing it other ways not raise the specter of some dodgy stuff? Yes. It feels more clumsy than nasty but it's certainly not a plus point.
While I'm picking on the flaws, I would note my friend Bryan pointed out that the first book is nearly alt-history due to how closely aligned to east Asian culture it appears and how thin the fantasy conceit is. True (not the flaw, at least not for me) but the fantasy conceit does get more of an outing here. The problem is part of its outing is as part of a deus ex machina ending that doesn't show Mara at her best either.
Considering that Daughter of the Empire worked because Mara was a boss and due to tight plotting, these are pretty serious flaws. Servant of the Empire is still full of enjoyable scenes and reads smoothly, but a cohesive momentum isn't there. And honestly, a lot of those enjoyable scenes are between Mara and Kevin. They do work well together. Just the narrative doesn't serve them well.
To end on a positive note, the world is fleshed out here and minor characters start seeing a bit more depth. Oddly enough, it's mainly Mara's ancestral foes in the Minawabi that get the good treatment, but old Force Commander Keyoke gets some nice depth too.
But let's not beat around the bush. Unlike the trilogy starter, this book aged very poorly and while still enjoyable to people with a taste for this thing, it lacks the quality to appeal outside its niche. Its a huge shame but Servant of the Empire does not serve its characters well.