Wednesday, April 29

Book Review: The Empire Trilogy

I'm hoping to start book reviews, since I love reading fiction, and I now have a quota of buying at least three books a month. So to get the ball rolling, I thought I'd share my first and greatest love: Fantasy. I grew up breathing fantasy books, and having a wildly vivid imagination, I didn't mind being a lonesome little boy. I was most of the time alone, but I was seldom lonely. I had my own worlds to be in. Initially I thought of reviewing Narnia, The Faraway Tree, or even Dragonlance, but there is a particular trilogy that I love so much I want to share it first. The Empire Trilogy is composed of:
  1. Daughter of the Empire (1987)
  2. Servant of the Empire (1990)
  3. Mistress of the Empire (1992)
This grand saga was written as a collaboration between Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts, set in the world of Kelewan. The story itself is a spin-off of The Riftwar Saga (a review for a later time, perhaps) written by Mr Feist. Where the original story, Magician, is set in Midkemia, whose likeness is of Medieval Europe, Kelewan (a land beyond a wormhole-like rift) is steeped with Far Eastern influence, reminiscent of feudal Japan. The descriptions of the world and its cultures, flora and fauna, are richly portrayed; so much so that even now, whenever I close my eyes, I can be transported to Kelewan in a heartbeat. Daughter of the Empire The first book, Daughter of the Empire, begins when Mara, daughter of House Acoma, is about to pledge her life as a priestess of Lashima. The ceremony is interrupted with the news that both her father and brother perished beyond the rift, leaving her to rule her House. Kelewan is a world ruled by men; she is one woman, not quite an adult. Although her House is old and respected, it is not one of the ruling ten. With only thirty retainers left, Mara has much to lose. In a highly unprecedented and unconventional manner, she bolstered her military numbers by employing Grey Warriors, outcasts whose Houses were destroyed. Traditionally they are without honor, and in a world where honor is more important than life, they are considered worse than brigands. In a brilliant move, Mara's commander Keyoke claims kinship with the leader of the Grey Warriors Lujan, hence their recruitment is seen as honorable and proper. What Mara did not expect is gaining the Spy Master Arakasi, whose House was destroyed by the great Minwanabi. Arakasi plays a pivotal role in helping Acoma rise as a House to be reckoned with. Mara also gains the alegience of a Cho-ja hive when she volunteers to enter an existing hive and calling the new-born queen beautiful. She is the first to treat the ant-like race as an equal instead of lesser beings slightly better than slaves. In a bold attempt to secure her House against invasion by others, Mara arranges a political marriage with one of the sons of House Anasati, the second most powerful House in the Tsurani Empire. She chooses Buntokapi, whom she thinks inept and brutish--someone she can control. Much to her surprise, Buntokapi proves to be a strong military leader, sly and much brighter than expected. He is also an abusive husband. After getting an heir, and with her son a guranteed protection by House Anasati, Mara manipulates her husband into commiting a ritual suicide to save his honor. She wants control over her own House again. The book ends with Mara humbling House Minwanabi, the most powerful House in their society, but her moves will prove to be potentially fatal later on. Servant of the Empire In the second book, Mara has brought House Acoma to a higher social standing, with wealth and power. She is also seen as an expert player of the Game of the Council. However, Lord Desio, the new ruler of House Minwanabi, has revenge on his mind. He pledges to the Death God Turakamu to grind Acoma to dust, a dangerous move should his plan fails. He also enlists his cousin Tasaio, a military genius and a cruel mastermind. To ensure the prosperity of her land, Mara buys Midkemian slaves, prisoners of war brought into Kalewan from beyond the rift. This is also when Pug, a Great One originally from Midkemia, lets loose his arcane wrath onto the arena, shaking the Tsurani society. The same event is recorded in the orginal Magician books. Among the newly acquired slaves is Kevin of Zun, a noble in his own world. The authors skillfully builds up the relationship between Mara and Kevin. He teaches the scarred and hesitant Mara the meaning of love and the beauty of lovemaking. But, now matter how close they have become, Mara is still a product of her society, and Kevin will always remain a slave. Hovever, through Kevin, her eyes gradually open to the flaws, limitations, and mostly the potential of her society. The powerful Minwanabi sends the Acoma to the southern desert land of Dustari, hoping that the whole house would perish in the war campaign. But, with the help of the Cho-ja loyal to her House, and Kevin's "barbaric" tactics, Mara and her House not only survives the campaign, but manages to secure a treaty with the desert chiefs as well. Having failed his mission, Tasaio is exiled. The table turns when Dasaio perishes in the war beyond the rift and Tasaio ascends as Lord of the Minwanabi. Tasaio executes a brilliant assasination attempt during Mara's stay in the imperial city of Kentosani. Mara loses her oldest and most trusted advisors, and barely escapes with her life. When the Emperor proclaims a ban against having Midkemian slaves in an attempt to make peace with the Barbarian King, Mara has no choice but to let Kevin go. She has always fought for his freedom, but not this way. Mara's brilliance is again put on display when she orchestrates the total annihilation of House Minwanabi, and instead of salting Minwanabi soil as tradition dictates, she takes up residence at the lush and rich land. For her exemplary service towards the Emperor and her Empire, Mara is named Servant of the Empire. She is also pregnant with the barbarian's child, though unknown to him. Mistress of the Empire To me, the last book of this series is by far the grandest. The story begins with Mara's firstborn getting killed when the horse he rides is shot with a poisoned dart. They find out that the dart belongs to the Hamoi Tong, a clandestine assassin organization. A token belonging to House Anasati is also found. Bent on revenge, Mara invokes a Clan war against the Anasati and Houses belonging in its Clan. She is however thwarted by the Assembly of Great Ones. Mara's life is again threatened by the Hamoi when they poisoned her drink. Mara loses her unborn child. An antidote is procured just in time, but as a result, she can only bear one more child. Arakasi takes a major role in this book when Mara entrusts him to single-handedly root out the Hamoi and destroy the organization. With Hokanu of House Shinzawai as her consort, Mara gives birth to a daughter, named Kasuma. When Arakasi comes back with Hamoi contract records, they find out that Hokanu's father 's murder has been contracted by Jiro, Lord of House Anasati. Mara is fueled to enact revenge, but the Assembly's chokehold on their society is strong. Mara and Hokanu also realize that the Assembly is keeping their society stagnant, stopping progress in every way. The Cho-ja queen, having the Hive Mind, lets on a great secret kept hidden since the Tsurani Empire was formed. The Cho-ja once had powerful magicians, rivaling the Assembly, but when they were forced into a treaty when the Empire invaded their lands, magic among the insectoid was strictly forbidden. In the lands of Thuril, beyond the influence of the Empire, these magicians still exist. Mara leads a secret expiditon into Thuril in search for aid from these spellcasters. With much difficulty, she returns home with two Cho-ja spellcasters. Her homecoming is greeted with the disturbing news that the Emperor has been murdered, leaving the throne open to anyone who marries his daughter. The Empire is in chaos. War reigns, and a grand showdown is pitted against House Anasati. When the war is over, Mara places her son Justin on the throne, and she becomes regent. Unhappy with this, the Great Ones themselves casts a powerful spell to kill Mara where she stands. Against all odds, and a sign that she is sacroscant, Mara is untouched by the spell. Mara hands over her ancestoral lands to Arakasi, forming House Arakasi. When everyone thinks she plans to use her new status for her own benefit, Mara makes the biggest sacrifice for the sake of the Empire. The trilogy ends on a sweet note when she is reunited with her lost love, who now comes to Kelewan as an ambassador. Additional notes To me, personally, this trilogy has been powerfully written. The details, the aspects of politics and warfare, as well as character development of not only Mara, but people surrounding her as well, are skillfully done. The tender moments and relationships are crafted in depth. There is not a dull moment in these three books. Maybe it is attributed to having both male and female minds working on this story. I have to thank my friend Ming-Han for introducing me to Mara and her world. I borrowed his books back in school, and somehow managed to make him lend me the books on a permanent basis the second time I read the novels. A friend in university borrowed the books, and I didn't get them back. So I bought the books for a fourth reading. I lent those books to a specialist during my housemanship, and sadly, it's a one-way trip. Even after having read the trilogy five times, I still feel the urge to go to Kinokuniya to buy a new set. Maybe I will. For those who love Fantasy, and for those interested to learn to write a large scale saga with such attention to detail, I highly recommend these books. I recommend the Empire Trilogy even to those who don't generally read Fantasy, but have an open mind.