As I confessed to Karen herself a while ago, I have something to confess to you all, too: Empress was the first book by Karen I’ve ever read. Sure I’ve read the prologues to Empress, The Riven Kingdom and to both of Mage-books, but Empress was the first. And why did I start with Empress and not The Innocent Mage? Well, I didn’t have The Innocent Mage at the time, only The Riven Kingdom, and Empress ended up being the first book I ran into. And I’m glad, because after I finish the Godspeaker series (of which Empress is the first book), I can get into her Mage-books and experience Karen’s raw talent. And trust me on this, Karen is a born storyteller!
Empress begins with Hekat, and ends with Hekat. Who is Hekat? She is a slave girl, a she-brat who is useless to her father because he needs sons to work, and when Traders come through their village, he sells Hekat to them, pushing her along the first steps of a journey that will make her the most powerful person in the land of Mijak.
The greatest aspect of this book is the voice Karen uses to tell the tale. Mijak is a land of slaves, warlords and godspeakers (holy men who are called to divine the wants of a brutal deity) and there is very little space for anything else than what the god has made known as your purpose. Only the high godspeakers of Mijak’s various territories are learned men, and perhaps Traders; if it is not in your purpose to learn how to read or write, you are not taught. Slaves are only taught to increase their value when it comes time to sell them, and warriors are taught to kill, warlords to direct that killing.
As Hekat makes her way through Mijak, she learns that Mijak is divided into territories controlled by various warlords and that these warlords do not get along; but Hekat is lucky and is taken to the greenest, biggest Mijaki city, Et-Raklion.
As Karen spins this tale for us, the characters live, and not only because they are so unique in temperament, personality, quirks and outlook. They also live because they don’t speak like lords and ladies or street urchins or smart-mouth youths. They are, by and large, primitive, and do is their way of life; this all is brought home by the voice Karen uses – there are no ‘big’ words, to hints of technology, to eloquently spoken philosophical concepts or sciences that can be learned. These people live to serve the god.
The action is great and suitable – the violence is brutal, and characters are put into positions where they make choices about themselves that no sane person would… at least, no sane person who did not know of the god. And yet, even through this violent lifestyle, there are those, too, who remain good, although the ‘bad’ guys are some of the coolest you might ever get to know. I say ‘bad’ because there aren’t really any bad guys. There are zealots, yes, who will do anything to serve the god as they were taught, and there are those who are so desperate to hold onto what they have, even though it is meager, because it is all they have. Some take power freely, others are born to it. But every character serves a purpose, driving the story forward in their own unique way, bringing a richness to the tale that only the best in the business of writing can match.
Even Mijak is rich in personality and detail, though the detail doesn’t overwhelm. We are shown a way of life that might have happened for us, or could still happen. The worldbuilding in Empress is deep and layered, serving to spice the story instead of cover it in icing, and when we are eventually told a portion of the Mijaki’s history it’s almost as if we knew, anyway, because of the way Karen layers the information.
And at its core, Empress is also a cautionary tale, a warning that all of us should take to heart. It is about getting exactly what you want, and then losing your humanity because of it. It’s about believing in a higher power so blindly that your life has no meaning without it and you lose the knowledge of who you are. It’s about trying so desperately to live up to ideals that others have pressed upon you that you forget you have desires for yourself and your future. It’s about using power to fulfill yourself, about using religion to subdue and enslave instead of allowing it to bring enlightenment.
And much, much more. All in all, Empress was an invigorating, enlightening read. I looked at the world with eyes that saw and understood a bit more, and I travelled to a far away land that terrified and beguiled me. And I understood that Karen Miller is going to be a long-time force in fantasy because she’s one of those writers that doesn’t lose sight of the humanity in any situation. A great, great read!