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If you are looking for dark fantasy, look no further. Empress by Karen Miller, first in her Godspeaker trilogy (the others being The Riven Kingdom and The Hammer of God) is emotionally draining, and uncompromising in its presentation of a dusty and bleak world. Miller has crafted a world and society so alien to her readers, and done so with such a loving attention to detail that it borders on author masochism, that it is difficult to imagine how anyone could relate to it.
The story follows Hekat on her rise from nameless slave to the eponymous empress, and as the tagline of the book states, “she will be slave to no man.” Just unfortunately co-dependent on them.
The first thing that struck me was how much I disliked the protagonist, Hekat. And I am not alone. For the record, I disagree with a lot of the reviews that consider this a failing of the book. In fact, it’s utterly brilliant. Hekat doesn’t start out unlikeable. Her exceptionally humble beginnings as a nameless “she-brat” sold into slavery by a father whose misogyny borders on caricature sets up a character that you want to root for. You want to watch her triumph over this awful hand she’s been dealt.
And boy, does she ever. The epic spans roughly thirty years, chronicling her rise.
Each achievement Hekat has on her rise to power, each word of praise, each message from her god, strengthens the woman’s sense of pride and self-assuredness until she is hard as stone. But as Hekat becomes less likable, and less relatable, Miller does something genius: she shifts the focus of the book from Hekat, to her son Zandakar and her one friend, Vortka. Both were already well-rounded characters, and they save us from Hekat’s growing madness just in time. Their point of view also gives us an external perspective by which to judge Hekat’s actions even within the internal morality of a very warped culture. While a reader would be appalled from page one by the world, when Hekat’s actions begin to appall them, you know she has crossed the line.
As a woman who rises from lowly beginnings to rule a nation with strength and cunning, some have compared her to Theodora of the Byzantine Empire. (Satima Flavell of the Specusphere also includes a brilliant observation that similar women arise throughout history and are always east of the Dardanelles) But I feel the character is more like that of Olympias of Epirus, better known as the mother of Alexander the Great. Like Olympias, Hekat rules Mijak using her husband’s authority until his death, and then her son’s while he is away on a war to conquer the world in her name.
But more startling to me was the cycle of co-dependence she falls into with the men in her life. Thanks to the window into her mind via the book’s POV, we get to see, rather than speculate, what her motivations truly are. At times, she is explicitly, desperately seeking the approval and admiration of the men in her life. First, her father, a man as nameless to her as she was to him, for whom she feels only hatred and disgust. Her purpose early in life is defined in comparison to him, and that squalor that she seeks to forget for the rest of her life. Then when Trader Abajai praises her, she comes to need that praise and approval. It feeds her pride. When he “betrays” her, her attentions shift to the warlord Raklion. When she has used him to lift herself up first to warrior in his retinue and then to his bed, her attention shifts to her son. From that moment, Raklion is dead to her and her life revolves around her son becoming the warlord; Raklion is only useful for his ability to conquer Mijak so that her son may inherit it. All the while, she is repeating the mantra that she is precious, first to the men, and then to her god. Even as empress, she doesn’t achieve any real measure of independence from the men in her life; even though she has power over them, she is emotionally beholden to a man at all times.
Thus, the tragic irony of the novel’s “slave to no man” tagline.
Yet, all those who say they hate Hekat, and hate the book because of it have missed the point: you were never supposed to like her, or identify with her. At most, you can empathize with her one real moment of loss which comes, no joke, on the very last page. At most, you can empathize with her feelings as a mother for what she is going through in that moment. But that still isn’t the point.
Empress is a story about the birth of a villain.
And when you view it with that perspective, it is an amazing profile in tragedy brought about by pure, undiluted hubris. It’s similar to the new Star Wars Trilogy. When you view all six movies together you realize it isn’t about Luke, it’s about Anakin’s rise, fall, and redemption. This is a tragedy that sets up a character who you want to see get what’s coming to them in the future novels.
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As far as the setting, I had a hard time liking it. I don’t think I was supposed to like it for the same reason I didn’t like Hekat: it’s a world that by its very nature will inevitably give rise to someone like her. The original cover of the book, with the original title Empress of Mijak tells more about the woman and the setting than the U.S. cover: It depicts Hekat on her scorpion throne sitting in her godtheatre toward the end of the book (though the woman in the chair seems a bit young still). But I like the U.S. cover style when viewed with the entire series.
If you haven’t read Empress, you’re missing out on one of the best villain origin stories in modern fantasy.