As a shiny new member of BookTok and Bookstagram, I’m inundated these days with the newest and (hopefully) greatest in fantasy reading recommendations from all subgenres. However, I don’t see much love for what I consider the classics. I want to rectify that, and I figured the best way is to start with one of my favorite trilogies.
Date Published: 1988, 1991, 1993
Genre: High Fantasy
Number of Times I’ve Read It: At least six for the whole trilogy
Content Warning: Mentions of suicide, ritual suicide, rape-within-marriage, sexual assault, assassination
Accessibility: Available in eBook, audiobook, and print (print copies most likely from used outlets)
Daughter of the Empire (5/5 Stars)
Mara is taking her final religious vows when a messenger interrupts the ceremony to report the deaths in battle of her father and brother. Now Ruling Lady of the Acoma, the teenager must rally its depleted forces against many enemies, particularly Lord Jingu of the Minwanabi, who sent her menfolk to their demise. Hampered though she is by the rigid traditions of her Oriental society, Mara replenishes her army with the masterless grey warriors and skillfully reaches a bargain with the cho-ja, insectoid aliens. Her most dangerous gambit is a political marriage to cement an alliance. Deprived of overt status, she finds it difficult to manipulate her brutish but cunning husband. This full-bodied dynastic fantasy has the sweep and drama of a good historical novel about an exotic time and place.
Servant of the Empire (4/5 Stars)
In the world of Kelewan, Mara of the Acoma has now become an expert player in the Game of the Council through bloody political maneuvering. After buying a group of Midkemian prisoners-of-war, she finds one of them—Kevin of Zūn—to be a great asset in her ongoing struggle for survival and power.
Mistress of the Empire (4.5/5 Stars)
Besieged by spies and rival houses, stalked by a secret and merciless brotherhood of assassins, the brilliant Lady Mara of the Acoma faces the most deadly challenge she has ever known. The fearsome Black Robes see Mara as the ultimate threat to their ancient power. In search of allies who will join her against them, Mara must travel beyond civilization’s borders and even into the hives of the alien cho-ja. As those near and dear to her fall victim to many enemies, Mara cries out for vengeance. Drawing on all of her courage and guile she prepares to fight her greatest battle of all–for her life, her home, and the Empire itself.
I first read these books during my voracious, fantasy-obsessed teenage years, shortly after the third book was released. They were unusual at the time for featuring a non-European-based culture and a very dominant female main character who meant business and could lead without needing a male counterpart. Lady Mara of the Acoma is not the stereotypical “strong female fantasy character,” however. She doesn’t use a sword or magic to enforce her will. Instead, she has a strength of personality and sheer brilliance which shines through and carries the entire trilogy.
The Empire Trilogy is, above all, a testament to the devotion a woman can have for her family and the determination to see that family legacy succeed, even in the face of a patriarchal society who believes she is too weak to lead. It is full of cut-throat (literally) politics on a scale that I have rarely seen attempted in any genre of books, let alone fantasy. When I say that this is a politically-oriented book, I am not exaggerating. Each action taken by characters within the book is considered of political significance, from the moment they wake up until they lay down to sleep. The books pull off political machinations in stunning twists that you almost expect and yet feel gutted by each time. I usually need to give a couple years between rereads of these books because they are that emotionally draining, in the most satisfying way possible.
Mara herself shines in this book, but the secondary characters are no less well fleshed out. Each has their own personality, and you could believe that they do, in fact, exist on some world far away from ours. This is a testament to how well Feist and Wurts worked together. I have read books written individually by each of them, including Feist’s Riftwar saga which these books are a peripheral to; I can say without a doubt that together they managed a magic which doesn’t translate as much in their separate works.
The worldbuilding in the Empire Trilogy is as complex as the characters, with even more layers and more than a dash of imagination added in. Those who have read Feist’s Riftwar books will recognize some elements, such as the Black Robes, a guild of magicians who are all-powerful in Kelewan, but even they are given a closer look here. There is also an insectoid alien species, the cho-ja, who Mara attempts to ally with throughout the trilogy. They, and their culture, are one of the most creative non-human species I’ve encountered in fantasy, and I am an avid fantasy and science fiction fan.
The worst I could say about the Empire Trilogy is that is often a little too dense to wade through. Daughter of the Empire is fast-paced for the most part, with action following decision seamlessly. Servant of the Empire slows down somewhat, although it is still action-packed. The first half to two thirds of Mistress of the Empire is where things bog down. The writers have so many plot threads in the air that it’s difficult to follow at times. However, it’s worth it because all threads in these books do get wrapped up, unlike some others. And the last third of the book is almost non-stop action and guessing on the reader’s part as to how it’s all going to end, with a twist resolution that leaves me breathless even after so many rereads.
I highly recommend these books to anyone who enjoys multifaceted characters, rich political drama, stunning worldbuilding, and a non-Eurocentric fantasy world.
© Allyson Pauley 2021