This was a very fun, very old-school read. At times, Miller felt like she was channelling early Tanith Lee (hear, I’m thinking of Vazkor, Son of Vazkor and The Birthgrave) or Robert E. Howard (of Conan-ic fame). Her exploration of violence, barbarism, childhood trauma, and implacable divinity frames a sustained character portrait of a woman who was born an unwanted she-brat, was sold as a slave, became a knife-dancer, and grew into an empress. Very, very good stuff. It’s also pretty cool that gendered roles seem to be class specific and related to social power– while it’s unheard of for a woman to become warleaders or high godspeakers, there are female warriors and female godspeakers. So, while patriarchy is pretty clearly an organizing force in society, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach; based on your class, your status as a free person, and your profession, sexism and gendered oppression manifests in different ways.
Hekat, the empress in the title, was beautiful. Her beauty (and the ways in which women are commodified because of their beauty) is both the key to her liberation and her burden. It’s why the slavers buy her from her father, take her from the savage north, and treat her as though she’s better than the other slaves they’ve purchased. They give her special food, are careful not to beat her (she reads this as affection, but it’s actually about not damaging property), and teach her to read. When she realizes she’s meant to be a pleasure-slave, she jets. However, the beauty that took her from the savage north is also a burden — she’s distinctive because of it. So she cuts up her face, waits ’til it’s nicely scarred, and becomes a knife-dancer of Et-Raklion. I don’t mean that she gives herself the kind of scars that secretly make you look cute and bad-ass. She’s got the kind of scars that make men and women call her ugly. After this, if folks think she’s beautiful, it’s because of her grace on the battlefield or because they’ve been taken in by her charisma and believe her to be the weapon of the god she claims to be.
It’s this last that moves the story forward. Hekat is profoundly driven. She believes she’s precious and godtouched, and that the god has a destiny for her. The god wants all of Mijak to be under her control and the control of her son, and also — by the by — wants her descendents to conquer the world. It’s hard to disagree with Hekat’s sense of her own importance — the god’s desire for blood pervades the book, compels her, and protects her. Other characters who seem to be godtouched, like the gentle Vortka, the conflicted Raklion, and Hekat’s son Zandakar, are pushed into the currents of Hekat’s great destiny. Their attempts to resist end in blood and pain. Hekat’s will always prevails. The end of the novel sees her ordaining the next hammer of the god in a huge god-theater, accolades raining down.
Not bad for an unwanted she-brat from the savage north, eh?