Feist Does Political Intrigue And Does It Well.
Spending three books in the highly ossified and rigid culture of other-worldly Kelewan was the right choice.
Feist’s first trilogy, the Riftwar Saga, is your traditional fantasy affair. Focusing on two adolescents, Pug and Tomas grow up together but ultimately diverge to play important roles in saving the world of Midkemia. The first threat? Tsurani invaders from Kelewan who are seeping through an open Rift that is connecting the two worlds.
What makes the world of Kelewan so intriguing is that it seems so other-wordly. While Midkemia is more or less any western province, Tsurani culture is more reminiscent of ancient Asian societies (Feist has said as much). The way Feist tees it up is that the first trilogy is really about making Kelewan seem as alien as possible while the second Trilogy is more of an intimate deep-dive of their culture.
With the help of Jenny Wurts, The Empire Trilogy explores Kelewan and its highly political culture. This makes the book genre much closer to political intrigue than fantasy, though there are plenty of those elements, too (such as as the hardy, low caste, anthropomorphic bees that roam hives and are integral to the Kelewan economy 🤪). This different pace makes the books all the much better as instead of going on a classic hero’s tale we instead have to keep track of the webs being weaved. Our protagonist Mara of the failing Acoma tribe navigates these pitfalls to attempt to become the most powerful leader of all Kelewan.
Mara of Acoma is just about to take the final rights to become a priest of Lashima when she is interrupted by an official from her Acoma tribe. Seconds away from living a life dedicated to the temple, she is instead pulled away with some startling news: she is now the heir after the death of her father and brother on Midkemia who were fighting in the Riftwar. While being a Ruling Lady was far from her mind, she now has to return to her land to try and hold her meager tribe together.
During the burial of her kin, an assassin tries to kill Mara to end the Acoma line. Thwarted by her personal protection, Mara dedicates herself to playing the Game of the Council, Tsurani’s phrase that encapsulates the political maneuvering on Kelewan to gain power. Knowing that the Minawabi, a competing tribe, sent her father and brother to their death on a fruitless campaign on Midkemia to kill them under the guise of war action, Mara focuses on building the strength of Acoma so she can take revenge.
But how will a weakened house be able to fight against the strongest members of Tsurani society? Mara uses their own rules against them. Instead of being ossified by the hierarchical, rule-laden culture, she starts to do things outside of the norm. As her power grows from bending and straining the fabric of societal rules, so does the animosity towards her. Traditionalists, jealous of her successes and scared of her methods, target her for retribution.
Mara’s journey to power becomes a fight over the very soul of Tsurani culture: will Kelewan change for the better or stagnate for the worse?
Rooting for the Underdog.
Who doesn’t like a good Cinderella story? Watching Mara navigate the treacherous waters of Tsurani politics and accumulate wins is no different than watching your school make a miraculous run to the final four. You can’t but help root for her as everyone has the upper hand…but she somehow squeaks out wins.
The way she does it? Bold egalitarianism. It’s a small d democrat fever dream! Whether it is reducing the caste system (slaves can contribute!), incorporating the unwanted (grey warriors are those without a house to serve and became wondering vagabonds, but no more!), or freeing an enslaved group of carpenter bees (seriously!), Mara brings more freedom to more people.
In a very cheesy way, this book made me think about what society-installed software I’m running and whether I am missing out on a richer and fuller life by not considering something.
Working Smarter, Not Harder.
An archetype I’ve always enjoyed is the political servant that accomplishes their goals not with brute force but with cunning and guile. Going into the battlefield and slaying hundreds is so boring — show me the person who instead sends the entire enemies’ force to death by use of trickery and strategy.
This book has plenty of those types of characters. For most of the series, Mara never has enough military force to threaten people directly. This leads to her creating situations more favorable to her success through setting people up. Her right hand man during this? Spy Master Arakasi!
Your classic spy, he is smart, stealthy, and soaks up everything like a sponge. Arakasi, the man of a hundred disguises, disperses the pages with surreptitious meetings and clandestine missions. The head of an entire information network and most powerful man in the Acoma house might just be the poor, downtrodden peasant next to you in the market.
His adventures of subterfuge are some of the best in the entire trilogy. His return home always a comedic affair as he frustrates Mara’s personal entourage to no end with how easily he can infiltrate her personal security.
His ultimate transformation from a dead-on-the-inside machivilian to softened older man is also a sweet transformation and well-deserved for one of my favorite characters from the books.
Hallmark Movie Special.
Book two introduces the true love interest of the Lady of Acoma: Kevin of Zun. The only problem — he’s a captured slave from Midkemia. Not only the lowest segment of Tsurani society but also from enemy lands, Kevin should be the least likely to capture Mara’s attention. Of course that means that they will have a passionate and ferocious love for one another.
Not only is the situation unlikely, but Kevin is able to offer everything Mara needs. Due to playing The Game of the Council, Mara has become hardened, withdrawn, and suspicious of everyone. Kevin is open and plain speaking. Not only does he gain her trust and allows her to be more of a complete person, he shows her the Midkemian way of life. She uses this to her advantage as she is able to use his outsider thinking to further her cause on Kelewan.
It’s all a bit much. However, I will admit, with their ultimate reunion, which you knew HAD to come, I succumbed to those good feelings.
Kevin’s character, outside of his relationships with Mara, is actually very interesting. As he grows in his relationship with Mara, he becomes separated from his fellow slaves. This leaves him in constant limbo: he wants to continue to help Mara, but that helps her keep his fellow people enslaved, but he loves her, but he’s doing well for himself, but his fellow people still live a life of forced labor. What’s a man to do?
Reading this book thirty years later also adds another cultural perspective. I know Feist isn’t saying Western Culture is supreme, but the actions and outcomes in his books gives credence to the idea that Kelewan culture, a culture based on ancient Asian civilization, is defective over the Midkemian culture, a culture based on European societies.
While the series initially started with Mara just taking advantages of cultural loopholes, the story arc turns this thread into a battle for the very soul of Kelewan society. It becomes extremely moralistic the further it goes with Kevin being a battering ram of how unfair Tsurani society is. By the time you arrive to book three, Mara is trying to overturn the entire society into something that looks more like Midkemia. . If you wanted to give a very uncharitable interpretation of this theme, the white savoir Kevin from Western Europe enlightens the barbaric Far East people of Kelewan.
I wonder if written today it would be as heavy handed with that. I think there was a way to make it more about Tsurani culture growing into something new versus it being a “wrong” way to live. Still, I don’t think that’s a true message of the book, just an observation of possible interpretation.
A nice change up from pure fantasy to political intrigue worth reading.
Other People’s Takes:
- The Idle Cyclist: “It is a refreshing change to see a strong female character at the heart of an old fantasy story. Feist has been criticised for his treatment of women during the Riftwar Saga but he very much overcomes that with the Empire Trilogy with obvious influences from Wurts.”
- Shadowhawk’s Shade: “Each big arc is a phase in Mara’s life, and it all goes together in the end to a spectacular and tense finish, just the kind I wanted to see.”
- Plausible Illusions: “This serves to bring an eerie sense to the Tsurani world – almost like it should be familiar – though there are enough differences to throw you for a curve or two. The world is beautifully crafted – the mental images produced for me are both stunningly beautiful and terribly violent.”