Karen Miller’s Empress, the first in the Godspeaker trilogy, is a book of epic high fantasy that clocks in at a whopping 717 pages. The length makes it look like a bit of a chore, but Miller’s tight prose and interesting representations of religious fervor will keep readers riveted. Lush action scenes filled with gore and righteous godly anger compliment the unforgiving harshness of the desert setting Miller has chosen. The unforgiving God of Mijak, who communicates through scorpions and pools of blood and who protects its people even as it horribly kills those who question it, is also well suited for the environment. The pace of the book is excellent, so the first 500 pages go by surprisingly quickly. However, in the last couple hundred pages when other protagonists begin to take center stage in preparation for the rest of the trilogy, Miller stumbles a little. The pace shifts and jumps time in odd ways, expecting us to connect and care about some characters that have only been secondary through most of the work. It’s a bit of a tough sell but it’s obvious that Miller is setting up the two remaining books in the trilogy, so some of it is forgivable.
The main character for most of the novel is Hekat, who we watch grow from an unsure unnamed unwanted she-brat to a slave to a knife-dancer to wife of the warlord to Empress of Mijak. She’s what we would call a religious zealot and a sociopath–she loves no one except her God and in that relationship she constantly describes herself as the God’s slave. Hekat’s meteoric rise to power is in service of her God and whenever she’s questioned on her motives or actions her assurances are so impassioned and proofs of the God’s favor so spectacular it isn’t long before very few question her at all. This makes her viewpoint particularly interesting because this kind of character is usually reserved for the villain in epic fantasy. To have her as a protagonist gives the reader an insight into her motives and reasons, making her more than some faceless enemy. Unfortunately the book stops short of having the reader sympathize with Hekat and her God, always framing them as unknowable and other. Other characters who are much more sympathetic are set against her which makes all of her actions seem unnecessarily cruel and evil at times. It was a great and troubling experience to live inside her head for that slice of time, but that last little bit of difference and distance stops the novel from being truly revolutionary in its point of view.
Empress can’t be talked about without discussing race because the people of Mijak are all described as having various shades of brown skin. One of the attractive aspects of the book is the presence of People of Color in a high fantasy setting; all too often in high fantasy brown people only appear as faceless hordes to be defended against and are never really presented as people. The problem here though is that by the end of the novel the people of Mijak are the ravening brown horde. They are on a mission of conquest, slaughtering thousands to spread the message of their god. These acts provide unsettling echoes to modern propaganda regarding the Middle-East: a supremely religious horde of brown people storming out of the desert to conquer everyone.
The unsettling feeling about race within the work is further enhanced by the fact that in the second book, The Riven Kingdom, we jump to a whole different country and woman, this one also trying to rule her people but in spite of religion instead of being helped by it. From information gathered from online reviews the second book is completely different, a more traditional high fantasy with a plucky heroine trying to fight the sexist, religious forces that would keep her off the throne. Rhian is lovable where people found Hekat crazy, sympathetic where others found Hekat the opposite, and white whereas Hekat is brown. Multiple reviews of the second book–which has already been released in Australia–contrast the two books, going so far as to call the characters of the first book barbarians, bloodthirsty and evil.
The way the Mijak is depicted and the way Rhian’s country will be depicted are problematic, especially when appearing back to back. The one ruled by brown people is where everyone is overly violent and bloodthirsty. The one that, again from what I’ve been able to scrounge up, is ruled by white folks does not portray the whole of the country as bloodthirsty and “evil”. If the second and third books in Miller’s trilogy turn out to complicate the problems surrounding race these books could do a good job of examining and altering stereotypes. But the final assessment will have to wait until the other two books are released stateside.
Empress itself is a totally engrossing work of fiction with political intrigue, betrayal, godly intervention, war and much more. However, the problems within it detract from its strengths and make what could have been great simply good.
Naamen Gobert Tilahun is a freelance writer in San Francisco. His lifelong love of Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror books, TV and movies (both really-exceptionally-bad and good) can probably be traced to a mother who showed him films like Monster Squad and Bladerunner and TV shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits at far to young of an age. He writes about identity, politics, media, and writing at his personal blog Words From The Center, Words From The Edge and is one of the many wonderful bloggers at Feminist SF – The Blog!.