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.