Daughter of Empire [1987]

This series of novels was written as a follow-up, or companion to Magician, Feist’s début novel. It depicts life on the other side of the Rift, the home world of the Tsurani. The principle character, the “Daughter of Empire” is the last remaining and unfortunately female heir of a once-great house, and covers the machinations she goes through to move from the edge of ruin to being an established presence in the political scene. Feist would go on to recycle virtually all of this plot material in Rise of a Merchant Prince 10 years later.

There should be a number of interesting things about this novel. It’s set in an “alien” culture, where an author should have free reign to create whatever he, or she, or in this case they, likes. Science Fiction authors are always being asked to do this, and fantasy authors should be doing it, though they lazily rely pretty heavily on a pseudo-medieval setup. Well… the world is not that vividly drawn, and frankly isn’t that interesting.

It’s also got a female lead character, which is unusual in fantasy from that era, and actually probably still unusual today. No comparably female-centred fantasy outing occurs to me off-hand, though I’m sure there should be plenty. So this is a chance to put fantasy from the point of view of a woman – how does that change the picture? As a woman, she is vulnerable politically: she needs to secure the succession, and there is a long section of the book where she cleverly uses a simple-minded man as a tool for this purpose. Complete with a side-order of tastefully implied sexual violence that doesn’t discomfort the male reader too much.

In terms of character, aside from mechanics of plot, Mara is essentially cold and calculating to an extreme degree. I never really got a sense that she had a personality at all, being pure political calculation. I obviously can only imagine what more there might have been, and I suppose this assessment would not be out of keeping with Feist’s characters generally; I’ve never read any of Wurts’ solo outings so can’t comment there.

As a novel, it somehow falls prey to most, if not all, of the political fantasy cliches. Mara turns out to be a political genius, whose every gamble pays off; her servants are inexplicably and unquestionably better than those of her opponents. She is the epitome of the plucky underdog with exceptional talent.

I think the best novel to compare this to in order to understand how different things could have been would be Book 4 of George RR Martin’s epic: A Storm of Swords. GRRM is intensely interested in politics and how political power works, how it is affected by fantasy situations and fantasy logistics. But his characters are not Mary Sues, they are deeply flawed characters whose mistakes are punished. Throughout Daughter of Empire, I compared the actions and results for Mara with those of Cersei. Cersei is a far less lovable character, whose mistakes are grievous and damaging to her stated goals – but they have about them the aura of authenticity and so are infinitely more interesting.

Frankly: Yawn. I’m astonished that I made it all the way through, and this is definitely where I hop off the trilogy. So why bother at all? Why did I read it? Why am I telling you about it?

Firstly, because I was having a conversation today that echoed some thoughts I’ve been having about fantasy literature for a long time: that it is not learning or growing. Tolkien established the pattern for “epic fantsay” and the likes of Terry Brooks have beaten that to death. I’m not sure what the origin of this political fantasy is exactly… but Daughter of Empire is clearly not ground-breaking: it is part of that tradition. I read a number of similar books in the 80s and 90s.

The change from Daughter of Empire to A Song of Ice and Fire does represent an evolution. It does indicate growth and development of some kind. It’s perhaps trivial to note, but one way or another it does suggest that there is a future for the genre.

Secondly, because… while I think perhaps this doesn’t live up to some idea of what fantasy literature should be 20 years later, enough people have recommended it to me over the years that in a loose sense, I feel it is part of the fantasy canon. It is an attempt to go beyond the slash-and-burn of Howard, and the gloom of most epics that display a spiralling doom; it is patently trying to take a female view on fantasy, and an alien view simultaneously.

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13 Responses to Daughter of Empire [1987]

  1. ceitfianna says:

    I think you need to go look in the Young Adult and Urban Fantasy section for a reminder of how many fantasy novels have female protagnanists. Also go read Diana Wynne Jones if you haven’t already or Kij Johnston then talk about a lack of women in fantasy.

    Also moving beyond the classic epic fantasy will give you more options to read.

    Since as someone who reads fantasy too, this whole entry makes me want to point you at the tor.com site and go, um, modern fantasy, not all George R. R. Martin.

    *steps off librarian soapbox* There’s good stuff out there it just takes some looking for.

    • mashugenah says:

      I’ve got to admit, when I wrote “fantasy” I did have in mind this kind of genre – the traditional, or mostly traditional, high fantasy epic.

      Thinking about it again though, Mai in Kate Elliot’s latest series is also similarly positioned – although she’s one character out of a cast of close to a dozen – and she too successfully navigates the difficult political currents. However, the stages of her success are more gradual, each move being far less grand and far more probable.

      There’s also a numbers game at play here. You’re putting up 2 authors as proof of female protagonists – I’m fairly confident that for every book you can name that has a female lead, I can go 10 the other way.

      For YA fiction things may be better than for adults. I can think of stories off-hand that feature female protagonists, from the Halfmen of O to His Dark Materials, and even the second and last of the Earthsea books… but in terms of an “adult” fantasy epic? Slim pickings. Should we be accepting YA books as where female protagonists end?

      And in terms of “urban fantasy” – I’m again aware of authors in this area; sadly though I think that while quite a few of them centre on females, most of what I’ve read ends up treating their female lead as a highly sexualized object, one way or another. Admittedly, my reading isn’t as wide in that genre, partially for that reason.

      And yeah, I am aware of other authors than GRRM. 🙂 But the comparison was quite specifically focused around political questions and their treatment. Cersei and Mara have a similar level of training and a similarly fraught political situation, but Feist/Wurts Mary-Sue their way through 500 pages, whereas GRRM fiddles to the burning political career.

      • ceitfianna says:

        Okay, first off, I was just trying to say that there is stuff out there. I wish there was a lot more fantasy with diverse casts, but by limiting yourself to just high fantasy you’re missing a lot.

        Also this entry and response comes off to me as well your YA and Urban Fantasy aren’t real fantasy and I have a good argument. That’s the kind of thinking from publishers that means female and other authors have a harder time. I personally think Feist and GRRM are okay authors but there’s a lot more out there. Don’t limit yourself and realize this is an incredibly small sample.

        If you want good Urban Fantasy, read Seanan McGuire and just go exploring in bookstores and on the web to see that high fantasy is only one part of fantasy and not how it is defined now.

        I’m sorry if my tone comes off as harsh, but I hate that fantasy can get elitist so quickly since it limits things.

      • mashugenah says:

        Yeah, I think we’re slightly at cross purposes here. 🙂 My question is why can’t high fantasy have a female protagonist? Rather than why aren’t there women protagonists in fantasy?

        Even so, I think that whatever your definition of fantasy (or, for that matter SF) you’re going to find a predominance of male rather than female characters. I’m not saying they aren’t out there, just that they’re in the minority.

        I also don’t want to leave you with the impression that my exposure to fantasy ends with “high fantasy” – it was just that when comparing DoE to other works, I think comparing it to other works in basically that same genre is more helpful than comparing it to works of a completely different genre. I’m not, for example, all that interested to compare it to the Honor Harrington books, whose female lead is also a political ingénue for whom everything goes well, because there’s no real correspondence in the world-structures the two characters operate in.

      • ceitfianna says:

        I see what you’re getting at and I think high fantasy can definitely have a female protagonist and its not that new an invention. Tamora Pierce did a great job of it with her Alanna books and her various worlds, also I believe many of the main characters in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time are strong females. They’re out there, don’t give up so easily.

        I’m quite aware of the dearth of female characters and writers, that’s why I was doing my best to point out that they are there. I wish there were more diverse casts and so I try and find and read books with them.

        So my recommendation stands, read more and be careful of general statements since it comes across as limiting and as if you’re not aware of other fantasy work.

      • mashugenah says:

        Robert Jordan’s an interesting one, because while he has powerful female characters, I found them generally unsympathetic – they all come across to me as manipulating bitches; except for Min, basically. I’m also not too sure how many of them really have much story power…

      • ceitfianna says:

        I haven’t read his work so I’m not prepared to discuss the details with you. Good luck finding more fantasy.

  2. Anonymous says:

    It’s been a while since I read it so I can’t provide any detailed analysis, but I remember enjoying that series a lot, even though I don’t like Feist in general. Then again I was in college when I read it so it wasn’t all that cliched to me at the time.

    (Then again I still read Brooks and enjoy him).

  3. nishatalitha says:

    You could try Janny Wurst Miswraith/Alliance of Light series – it’s quite long, though. I haven’t read it or any of the recent books in it for years, but it might be worth a shot. I enjoyed the Empire series more than Magician, but it was one of the earlier examples of women-in-power in fantasy (that wasn’t YA) I’d read, and also, I enjoyed the trading aspects.

    In terms of recent fantasy, read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and the second in the series, The Broken Kingdoms by NK Jemisin. They’re books 1 & 2 in a trilogy with female protagonists. I’m not sure I would term them high fantasy, but they’re pretty good. I’ve got them and will loan them to you if you want.

  4. I have heard good things of Deed of Paskernarion – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Deed_of_Paksenarrion.

    • mashugenah says:

      Yeah, last night I had a casual look at my own bookshelf and found another half-dozen fantasy epics with female leads. Very embarrasing, and a sign I shouldn’t trust the top of my head for very much.

      The Deed of Paksenarrion is indeed very very good – it was required reading for any one of my CHCH players who wanted to play a paladni.

  5. adrexia says:

    I found that book too boring to even finish when I started reading it in highcschool. For fantasy books with female characters, there are Marion Zimmer Bradley’s books. Her science fiction worlds largely suck, but her fantasy is good.

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