In Empress, Miller has a pretty all right start. I really got a kick out of Hekat. Her desire to see all those who wronged her horribly smited spoke to my evil, lonely heart. It wasn’t until Riven Kingdom that I began to suspect that Miller was writing some fucked up Orientalist drivel.
This got extremely explicit in Hammer of God, the conclusion to the Godspeaker trilogy. At this point, Rhian is Queen (…why?), Alasdair is her king, and the trading nations are trying to prepare for the arrival of the Mijaki army. Hekat has turned to human sacrifice to conquer physics, and this dark magic is proving too much for the mysterious magics of the Tzung-Tzungchai. Zandakar, Hekat’s traitorous, tortured son, has been training the peaceful nation of Ethrea to fight, in the hopes that like 7 weeks of training can seriously turn the tide against an army that’s been training for years. It’s very underdog, and very dumb. Anyways, Rhian becomes a warrior queen, Dexterity does some miracles, the Tzung-tzungchai are magical ninjas, and there’s a big battle. Rocks fall. Everyone dies.*
Things that MIGHT have made this better:
1. Actually having Rhian engage in some statecraft. She’s constantly doing dramatics (slashing her face to convince some ambassadors of her sincerity, dropping to her knees to beg the Emperor of Tzung-tzungchai to help Ethrea, etc) but the day to day stuff, such as appointing dukes to manage various duchies, arranging the political marriages necessary to keep her nobility pacified, or even the basic PR task of knowing she’s supposed to go to a set of public events so that her citizenry know she cares are all beyond her. Considering that she’s supposed to have learned rulership from her dear old da’ AND she’s supposed to be a legitimate queen in contrast to Hekat’s stolen rulership (and seriously, think about how that’s a stern warning about class-passing — the “real” queen is young, noble, and overtly heterosexual, and the barbarian/demon queen is almost asexual, a former slave, and old), you got to wonder why she never actually RULES ANYTHING. She spends a third of her time crying, another third letting Dexterity and Zandakar be the boss of her military strategies, and the third third begging the Tzung-Tzungchai to rescue her people.
2. Avoiding the narrative equivalency of Mijak with its god and the Tzung-Tzungchai with theirs. The Ethreans are not all characterized by Rollin, their Christ-figure. The two brown nations, on the other hand… let’s just say Mijak is the demon and the demon is Mijak. The Tzung-Tzungchai are believers in the wind and the breath (what, is that from the back of a yoga dvd with piss-poor production values and a free sample of authentic chai tea?) and that’s everything you need to know about them. Well, that and they are both proud, haughty nations.
3. Avoiding lazy writing. All the other nations are nations; they have specific national characters, informed by their role as trading nations and longer histories. Mijak is simply an evil nation sleeping in the east, coming out to conquer. Its legacy is the scent of blood and its citizens are dancing warrior locusts. Each of the Ethrean characters has an idiosyncratic way of speaking unique to him or her. Not so with the Mijaki — their intonations and phrasing are all very similar. This is simply lazy writing. If your characters aren’t important enough to you that you give them individual voices, why should they be important enough to me that I should stay with them for over a thousand pages?
3. A resistance to the basics of Enlightenment-era religious debates. Okay, so David Hume talks about miracles and their challenge to the precepts of Enlightenment thought, because how can the rational man believe the unbelievable? He contrasts this to the unthinking primitive, who’s got a faulty belief in the fantastic, and who illogically and without question believes in their incorrect, non-Western diety. In this particular series, the investment in Enlightenment ideas of faith manifest in the fact that only Ethrean (white, Christian, middle-class and above) characters have extended reflections on faith. Their doubt becomes part and parcel of their complexity, since to have a deep, abiding faith in miracles is to be duped by a false god.
4. Give Rhian some female companionship. I sincerely doubt that she’s the only member of the Ethrean nobility to get suffragetist with it. Can she at least have a canny lady in waiting willing to flirt with the ambassadors to find out state secrets? A knowing girlfriend eager to advise her on the foibles of married life? A chambermaid with two brain cells to rub together? An aunt, a mother-in-law, clerica, with administrative experience in the basics of running an estate? This book so FAILS the Bechdel test… so phenomenally it’s amazing.How can she have been the only female member of the nobility to feel entitled to a birthright? How can she have no girlfriends? No references to a childhood with female companionship? Gah.
Thank god for libraries. I would have been LIVID if I’d paid for this.
*My ending is better.