Some people are just, to quote Daffy Duck, “dith-spicable!”
Empress is about a girl who grows up with no name, in a dirt-poor village on the edge of a desert, unwanted and unloved. She gets sold to a passing trader, who anticipates being able to train her as a concubine. This event triggers something in the girl, some hidden ambition or untended guile. She gives herself a name—Hekat—and begins plotting, eagerly soaking up everything Abajai the trader can teach her. When she discovers that he only sees her as a commodity, that his investment in her is purely so he can get a better return, and that she is nothing more than a slave, Hekat runs away. She insinuates herself into the barracks of the local warlord and eventually inveigles her way into the ranks of warriors themselves—no mean feat for someone born in a backwater and malnourished and mistreated all her life.
Hekat’s learning curve is meteoric and remarkable. She goes from not having names for anything—she herself is a “she-brat” and her presumed mother and father are merely “the woman” and “the man” to having a name for herself, for her country, and for the various cities within it. She learns that people routinely travel more than a couple days’ walk from the village, that massive cities larger than she could ever have dreamed exist, that warlords raise vast warhosts to do battle. She learns how to ride, how to fight, and more. Hekat would be a textbook example of a Mary Sue … if we were supposed to like her.
Many writers enjoy taking characters like Hekat and creating pathos as a result of their struggles. Karen Miller opts instead to test the reader’s ability for empathy to its limits. Hekat is not a likable person. She hurts people and enjoys it. She is vicious and ready to retaliate at any opportunity. If she is wronged and does not have the strength to retaliate, she remembers until she does. In this way, Hekat keeps trading up, starting as the poorest and most wretched of creatures and attaining—well, without spoiling it, the book is called Empress, mmkay?
Is a character still a Mary Sue even if she is completely unsympathetic while everything goes right for her? I don’t know. I’m not even sure it’s right to call Hekat the protagonist of the book—I suppose that depends if you think she should succeed. Then again, there’s also the fact that she thinks she has “the god” on her side. And unlike in our world, where the fundamentalists’ cries of, “Strike him down, God!” are generally met with silence from on high, this god is quite direct in its responses to such requests. So is it evil if what one does serves the god and it indicates this?
Beyond Hekat’s personal flaws there is the larger world of Mijak and beyond to consider. Mijak is a country firmly in the grasp of religion. Each of its warlords has a personal high “godspeaker”, a priest who communes directly with the nameless god that Mijak people worship. This high priest has under their charge thousands of lesser godspeakers, who collect offerings from the people for the god and explain the omens the god gives people. Everything in Mijak revolves around the god, as indicated by the language: temples are called “godhouses”, months are “godmoons”, offering bowls are “godposts”, etc. As many other reviewers have pointed out, this is repetitive to the point of annoyance.
Mijak culture, aside from its godliness, seems remarkably impoverished. I don’t know if this is intentional or merely a consequence of Miller’s writing. At one point, Hekat purchases “stories” on clay tablets. Beyond this, there isn’t a lot of time spent establishing how the Mijak people make art, literature, drama. These are people who are technologically on the same level as the Babylonians, thereabouts. But they seem to lack much of interest in the lineages of their warlords, in stories depicting grand deeds from the past, in tales of heroes and villains. Each day is just another day serving the god.
I’m ambivalent about how much I enjoyed Empress. It’s a hefty book, and it could stand further elision at points. Yet I also ripped through it at a hearty pace—I was intrigued enough by Hekat’s deviousness, by her machinations versus Nagarak, that I wanted to know what would happen next. However, I never felt immersed in the world like I have with other fantasy novels. I suppose it’s fair to say that Empress is a very focused book, and so it is good at what it does, but it lacks the wide depth-of-field and rich background that I also enjoy.