Raymond Feist is a fantasy author best known for his Riftwar saga – an epic fantasy cycle telling the story of a war between two worlds. The saga is set on Midkemia – a world very much like medieval Europe, or, to be more precise, like Tolkien’s Middle-earth. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Midkemia is a brutal rip-off of Tolkien’s world, but Middle-earth is definitely a very strong inspiration for Feist. The world of Midkemia is basically feudal Europe, with plenty of castles, keeps, villages and cities, but most of all full of forests and roads – long and winding – leading through them. It’s populated mainly by people, sure, but also by dwarves and elves, trolls and goblins, dragons and magicians.
My first encounter with Feist was, paradoxically, not through any installment in the original Riftwar saga (starting with a classic Magician), but with a spin-off of sorts, a trilogy set on the other side of the magical rift – on the world of Kelewan. The Empire Trilogy, as it’s called, was the effect of collaboration between two writers: Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts. Wurts is a fantasy artist (she makes covers for her own books) and a writer in her own right, albeit much less popular than Feist – the Empire Trilogy remains her most popular work to date.
In the Empire Trilogy we see the other side of the coin: the world of invaders who ruthlessly conquer Midkemia. It is a very interesting approach all in itself – I will compare it to the rather improbable situation (definitely not viable in our leg of Time’s pants) where Tolkien himself would create an account of the war in Middle-earth from the perspective of Sauron and his orcs. Not very likely, huh? Although others have already done it, even if later than Feist and Wurts…
Kelewan is a mirror image of imperial Japan from Shogun’s times, when the Emperor was god but the real political power resided among various noble clans viciously fighting with each other. A mirror image, but with a few slight differences: on Kelewan the sun shines stronger, there are no seasons, the beasts of burden have six legs, there is no metal whatsoever, and the world is inhabited not only by humans, but also by cho-ja – a sentient race of ant-like insectoids. The whole world of Tsuranuanni is held rigid by a complicated set of rules and traditions – so many of them and so constraining, that virtually no progress is possible.
In this setting we meet Mara of the Acoma – a young girl who wished to become a priestess but because of a family tragedy is forced to become the head of her clan. Her family, the Acoma, were once very powerful but now are decimated, leaderless and weak. Weakness among Tsurani is highly dangerous. It is seen by others as an opportunity to gain more power – simply by murdering all the remaining members of the hapless family, taking over their lands and business, and, last but not least, obtaining something maybe less tangible but equally important – fame and honor.
Through three weighty books we accompany Mara on her tortuous road to power. We witness the evolution of Mara’s character: a would-be nun, far away from worldly affairs, becomes a ruthless and talented politician, addicted to the Game of the Council, getting high on power. And only after some personal tragedies – and when her personal stakes become entwined with the policies of the whole Empire – she becomes something more. Mara is a very well-written character. A strong woman, sure, but the scope of her humanity – and inhumanity – is not in the least limited to her gender. We see her as a leader faced with tough decisions, as a parent, a lover, a politician, a victim as well as a perpetrator. We see her blunder and succeed in turns, we see her crying, compromising her own values, broken and breaking others. We also see her grow and change – not only herself, but the world around her as well.
It is a world worth knowing – multi-faceted, realistic, well-thought and well-written, and populated by many increasingly interesting characters. We learn a lot about the Tsurani ways of fighting, doing business, growing crops and selling needra hides, but most of all we get to know various customs, traditions and ways of life. Of course, most of it is nothing new, really – we’ve seen it all through Clavell’s eyes in his famous Shogun, but still, Feist’s and Wurts’ attempt deserves a praise.
It is a rare case when a collaboration of authors brings fresh fruits instead of rotten – and I can attest to the fact that the Empire Trilogy is such an exception. It is very well written, fast-paced but at the same time rich in detail. The many characters populating the Tsurani world are each given well-deserved depth; sometimes in a few strokes, sometimes through a lengthy psychological study, but in the majority of cases they ring true. We come to like and hate them, root for or against them, to appreciate their little ways. We have a chance to get irritated, troubled and fascinated by their stories, their decisions and fates. We understand them, and this is the biggest advantage of the Empire Trilogy novels as a whole – the people seen in the Riftwar saga as alien, and their ways incomprehensible, become known; different, sure, but at the same time fathomable.
Of course, it is all much easier to digest when in the second installment a Midkemian barbarian comes into the fray, to promote the civilized Western mindset. As I said, Shogun all around. And we of the barbaric origins feel rightly appeased ;).
There are some slight drawbacks – the first installment, Daughter of the Empire, reads a bit like an old-fashioned computer game: the choices of the main characters are very limited, the events trickle one at a time, at a steady pace, and it takes the authors a considerable time to find their cooperative footing. There is also a rather improbable amount of good luck involved, but then Mara of the Acoma starts from a very unfavorable position. Tthe book does get better, however, and the slow beginning gives the readers an opportunity to get immersed in the world of Kelewan. The second installment, Servant of the Empire, is more evenly paced and has the best bad guy in the whole trilogy 🙂 But, as I said before, it is very Shogun-like. I prefer to treat is as a tribute instead of rip-off, but I freely admit it’s a very close thing. The third installment, Mistress of the Empire, is the biggest and most ambitious in scope, but also the least probable. There are several authors’ choices, especially at the end of the novel, that I can’t agree with: they seem forced.
All in all, the Empire Trilogy is a really good read. Not original and a bit naive at times, but written with flare – and heart. It’s a rare enough thing in our times to be treasured as it rightly deserves.
Score: book I 8/10, book II 8,5/10, book III 8/10