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Book Review: Empress by Karen Miller

Genre: Epic Fantasy
ISBN: 0316008354
ISBN-13: 9780316008358
Format: Mass Market Paperback, 717pp
Publisher: Orbit
Pub. Date: April 2008
Series: Godspeaker Trilogy

Empress, Karen Miller’s new novel, is shockingly different from her previous duology, the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker series. Where The Innocent Mage began sadly, but moved on to be more pleasant and into the eventual triumph of the hero, Empress does not. Empress begins on a low note, and progressively gets worse.

What Miller has done with Empress is show us the rise of a barbarian warlord. The culture she has created is violent, worshipping a scorpion god who craves bloody ritual sacrifice. The godspeakers, those who perform the sacrifice, are a police force, and a political entity separate from the warlord’s control, are the only people able to hear the god. But Hekat, a runaway slave girl, upsets that balance when she discovers that she can hear the god as well. Believing herself special, Hekat begins a slow climb up the social ladder of Mijak, seeking power both to satiate her lust for it, and as protection for herself.

In the meantime, a fellow slave, Vortka is also making the climb into the realm of the powerful, but through a slow process, unlike Hekat’s clawing. His rise is slower, and ends up intertwined with Hekat’s for better or worse.

Empress is a bloody, violent novel. Ritual sacrifice is common, and participants drink blood as part of the ritual. Others swim in pools of blood as they seek the will of their violent, unforgiving god. All “magic” comes only through the god’s power, and while it gives power and knowledge, just as often it arbitrarily won’t. It is a fickle god, seen as an impersonal force by its supplicants. Hekat revels in it, and although at the beginning of the book she is a sympathetic character, by the end we want to hate her. Yet she for all her success, she is a small child inside, her emotions are stunted and all she can feel is fear or hate.

The society that Miller has created is like the ancient Assyrian or Babylonian empires, with their city states that eventual become powerful nations. And the plot similarly follows their rise into power. Mijak eventually becomes a conquering nation, a barbarian horde subjugating all peoples.

Karen Miller’s next two novels are actually going to tell the central story of the trilogy. This first is the history of the character that will become the villain in the sequels, or at least so it seems. By the end of the novel, you will want to see Hekat’s destruction, along with her sons and Vortka. You know the ending is coming, and the final betrayal of Hekat results in some interesting possibilities for the sequel.

The novel is extremely long, and the style of writing can get annoying. Miller is writing a completely different novel from those she has previously published, and the structure of the world she has created has a lot of ritual dialogue which can get repetitious at times. Phrases like “may the god see you in its eye” or arrogant words that tell of the speaker’s triumphs or skills tend to wear on you after a bit. The reader would do well to take this novel in slow spurts, rather than trying to read it all at once. Otherwise, the repetitious dialogue that, while logical for the society Miller has created, is still a bit much to take.

The story itself is fascinating. Miller has replicated a culture that is difficult for modern people to understand. It is a culture where religion rules much of everyday life. And yet there is always the possibility present that this religion is actually a twisting of what might be a natural phenomena. Miller gives no answers as to the origin of the religion of Mijak, only presents its effects, but some of the elements of the story leave the veracity of that religion open to discussion.

Miller has really gone out on a limb to make Empress different from her Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology. Although she continues to write a character driven novel, her characters are less enviable, and her world much more barbaric. It was fascinating to read the story of how an evil warlord comes to be an evil warlord. In this trilogy, the villain is not going to come into being fully evil, but slides down into it through a long, slow process, as a result of very human traits.

I enjoyed the novel. Although it could be repetitious at times, and the cadence of the story could be tiresome, it was still interesting to read. The idea behind it is different from the average epic fantasy novel. Rather than either celebrating heroism or evil, it shows the real, human emotions behind what we call “good” and “evil.” AS I’ve mentioned, it is extremely violent and bloody, so those with a weak stomach ought to avoid it. As well there is a liberal does of swearing and a few sex scenes (including a rape of a man!) so anyone offended by that ought to avoid it.

But for all that Empress is creative enough and different enough to make it enjoyable. I did not enjoy it as much as The Innocent Mage and The Awakened Mage perhaps because there was no character I was really able to root for, but its characters were interesting enough that I wanted to know what might happen to them. I recommend this novel, with the few caveats stated above, and look forward to seeing how its sequel looks at the enemies of Hekat and its portrayal of their characters.

For another interesting take on Empress, check out Chris, The Book Swede.