Published in Beyond Bree, July 1992
Mistress of Empire (1992) is a spectacular conclusion to an unnamed trilogy (including Daughter of Empire (1987) and Servant of Empire (1990), hereafter referred to as the Empire Trilogy) set within the context of Feist's Riftwar Saga (Magician: Apprentice, Magician: Master, Silverthorn, and A Darkness at Sethanon). The Empire Trilogy bears the same relationship to the Riftwar Saga that Anne McCaffrey's Harper Hall Trilogy (Dragonsinger, Dragonsong, and Dragondrums) bears to the Dragonriders of Pern Trilogy (Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon). Like those trilogies, there is considerable overlap in characters, and some events occur in both sets of books. Despite this overlap, however, reading of the Riftwar Saga is not required, nor, except for the first two books, recommended. Although the two Magician books are excellent (reminiscent of Ursula LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea), I found the last two books somewhat mechanical and filled with implausible events.
In all respects, the Empire Trilogy is superior to its predecessor. It remains focused around one character who continues to grow and change over a period of a little over twenty years, and the quality of the writing and the inspiration is as good in the final volume as in the first. In the Riftwar Saga, a battle between two worlds, one (Midkemia) medieval complete with humans, elves, dwarves, and a few dragons and the other (Kelewan) dominated by a society somewhat similar to a cross between Aztecs, Egyptians, and the premodern Japanese, the invaders from Kelewan exhibit strange behavior, frequently leaving the battlefield without exploiting their advantage after winning battles. These baffling actions, left largely unexplained in the Riftwar Saga, are part of complex political activity on Kelewan, referred to as the Game of Council, in which families and clans conspire against each other in power struggles in which the riftwar is only a minor factor, and is usually irrelevant.
Daughter begins just after one of these political maneuvers is complete. The Lord of Acoma and his son and heir have just died on Midkemia when the troops of a rival family, the Minwanabi, chose not to support the Acoma attack in a battle. In the opening pages, the lord's daughter, Mara, a seventeen-year-old about to join a religious order, is elevated to Ruling Lady of her family (of which she is now the sole survivor). The rest of the book recounts her desperate struggles to save her family from obliteration at the hands of the Minwanabi. It is a fascinating tale involving war, political intrigue, economic battles, spying, assassination, marriage to an enemy, child bearing, ritual suicide, and, interestingly, no acts of magic save one (which is not especially important and near the end of the book). Throughout, Mara overcomes adversity by breaking tradition in an extremely tradition-bound society. (This book is so good that I reread it immediately after I finished it the first time.)
In Servant, Mara, a widow with a son and heir, is still doing everything she can to safeguard her family and her clan as her problems in the Game of Council multiply, and she engages in blood feud with the new rulers of the Minwanabi. In this book, Mara continues to successfully act against tradition, this time integrating radical thought from Midkemia into her strategies, which she learns to appreciate from her Midkemian slave and lover, Kevin, whom she buys near the beginning of the book. Although I was somewhat disappointed in this book at the time I read it, its apparent disunity and loose ends are justified by Mistress. For example, the courtship of Mara by Hokanu of the Shinzawai in Servant, seemingly irrelevant in view of her love for the barbarian from Midkemia, provides an appropriate and important background to her marriage to Hokanu as depicted in Mistress.
In the final volume, Mara engages in a second blood feud with the Anasati, the family of her first husband, who have never forgiven her for his death in the first book. In each novel Mara becomes a more significant figure in Kelewan. Her changing status is reflected by the title of each book. The first is an informal title grudgingly given to her by her father-in-law, the Lord of Anasati, because of her ability to remain alive as an active player in the Game of Council. The second is a formal title given to her by the Emperor for her service to the Empire. The third is a title never previously held by another person in the history of her country. It is difficult to describe just how good this trilogy is.
Although it has no obvious plot similarities or characters, it is similar in style to the Lord of the Rings, in five respects. First, like LOTR it contains a host of well-developed, extremely interesting characters. In this respect, it is similar to the western novel Giant, since it depicts a large number of characters over a long period of their lives. Second, it avoids magic, using it very sparingly and in accordance with alternate laws of nature, Tolkien's own approach. Third, it frequently begs to be read out loud. Indeed, there are passages which have to be read out loud in order to determine just how they should sound. Fourth, though detailed, so much is left untold on purpose (or assumed) that it reads more like a historical novel than a work of fiction. In Tolkien language, it is a pretty good attempt at subcreation. Fifth, it includes two final chapters tying together loose ends and indicating the fates and futures of most major characters.
Although it is not impossible that Mara and the others may appear in future novels about Kelewan or Midkemia, Mistress concludes so thoroughly and completely, and the trilogy is so unified as it now stands, that it is hard to imagine the authors desiring or for there being any need for future sequels about Mara, although updates on her in novels about other people might be welcome (provided she gets to live happily ever after, since she really deserves it).
One of the more interesting elements of the three books, as well as the Riftwar Saga, for that matter, is the cho-ja, nonhuman insect warriors who make a cameo appearance in the Magician novels in underground battles with the dwarves. In Daughter Mara establishes political relations with a new cho-ja insect colony and she visits it regularly. Even though huge amounts of information about the cho-ja are provided in Daughter and Servant, their importance to Mistress comes as a complete, though pleasant surprise.
Only slightly less important is the role of the Kelewanian magicians. The detailed account of these magicians, or Great Ones, is one of the major subjects of the first two volumes of the Riftwar Saga, in which Pug of Midkemia becomes a Black Robe and then defies the Assembly of Magicians. In Mistress, Mara, though without magic of her own, openly struggles (politically) with the Assembly. Sociologically, Daughter deals with the Kelewanian political traditions associated with the High Council. Servant provides comparative (Midkemian) insight into these traditions. Mistress challenges the whole system, including the founding assumptions of the country, the Tsuranuannian Empire.
Because I have commented on Feist's work, specifically, the Riftwar Saga, it might be appropriate in closing to mention Janny Wurts' own books. Because of Daughter I read her Cycle of Fire Trilogy (Stormwarden, Keeper of the Keys, and Shadowfane), which was interesting but not great. Her recent novel The Master of White Storm, however, is excellent and well-worth reading, though still not on the same level as the Empire Trilogy. Most likely, neither Wurts nor Feist will ever top this joint writing project.
ECH - July 18, 2001