Author: Marian L Thorpe
Genre: Historical Fantasy
A country on the brink of defeat.
A woman who answers a call to arms.
A man to challenge an Empire.
For centuries, women used weapons to kill for food, men to kill in war. Now Lena must break with tradition to save those she loves, but as she steps from her settled world into one of battle, intrigue and politics, her lover chooses banishment. Lonely and afraid, each decision Lena makes brings more terrible consequences, until even her own people turn against her.
Her partner in exile, the enigmatic diplomat Cillian, has no survival skills. Lena’s quick wit and prowess with knife and bow keeps them alive as they search for a lost Empire of immense and ancient power. But how much will Lena sacrifice for a hopeless cause before the price is just too great?
Rating: Vivid Characters, Emotional (sometimes very sad), Earthy
The Short Review:
Every character has intricate depths and motivations, not always on the surface, and bringing those out lends insight to earlier decisions and to character growth. From the beginning, one is pulled into Lena’s and Maya’s life together. I really liked how the book started with a setting of them on their boat together, Lena always wanting to explore the next cove; a quiet scene showing their life together, aspects of their relationship and partnership, village life. It really lets you just know the characters and feel for them, feel for Lena and Maya’s relationship, enjoy the good they have together and want more of it.
The book continues in that vein. So much of it shows the daily life of the people and the village, how they live, how they work, how they relax, and their feelings and responses through all of that.
Maya’s past, what has happened in Maya and Lena’s pasts together, when one learns about it, really sheds light on the way she reacts to things, her dedication to Tradition, and other things about her. The way she responds and copes can be very unhealthy, but understanding it provides perspective. She’s such a heart-touching character I hurt for so much. I really wanted her to find herself and have the best.
In a way, that captures all the characters in this series. All of them have pasts, have or endure trauma, make choices that have consequences, and deal with it in different ways that affect their choices and perspectives afterward, and sometimes those ways are not clear at first. In Lena’s case, she eventually notices and thinks about some of these things, and tries to work her way through them, or at least acknowledge them, herself. In the case of others, we don’t know as much, since we don’t see their thoughts, but in some cases it’s not clear if they are ever aware of it.
In a related vein, this book made me hate the Empire so much. It made me hate the Empire for tearing boys away from their mothers, for tearing sisters and brothers apart, for keeping men and women apart, for what it does to boys who won’t fight, how it tries to make them fight. No society, no kingdom is perfect, and I am ready to hate them all for the dystopias they are, how idyllic they seem to some of the people living in them, if they try to keep people from making their choices, punish people for reasonable choices, force everyone into their mold!
This story is very character-driven, very much a character novel, with a great deal of reality and nuance to all the characters. However, it is often very sad. There is joy, a relationship and arc of redemption, that I really enjoyed (I will talk about it below, as I think a lot of it falls under the ‘spoilers’ category for many people), but there’s a lot of sorrow, and a feeling as of life unfinished, of things lost and never to be found, things broken and never to be mended. There are a lot of characters who don’t find their way through to healing, to acknowledgement and healing, and by healing I don’t mean ‘life as if the trauma never happened’. So, if you’re not in the mood to deal with something that’s often very sad, I wouldn’t read this book.
There were times when I almost hated it when the pace picked up. Times when I wanted the story to stay quiet and slow, just to learn and live, to watch the characters learn and live, for life to continue as it was. I’m not saying this was a good thing or a bad thing. In many ways, it was a sign of the fact the books did give that, which I really like. I really enjoy those moments where it’s just life, with the quarrels and friction of different people from different (or not-so-different) backgrounds in daily life, working or learning. And, in a lot of ways, the story was evocative of life, and the feeling of life in such moments, and when they are disturbed.
The other thing to be noted is that the book seemed to imply that, without the use of contraception, women who are regularly engaging in fertile sex and do not have any infertility issues will have children right after the other, getting pregnant again almost immediately after giving birth. My understanding is that, when women nurse their children, in most cases the children will naturally be spaced out between about two and three or so years. So, I found that a little annoying.
The Continued Review (It is not a Spoiled Feast we have here, but a Feast of Spoilers):
First, I’ll go into a little more detail about Maya. Maya is obstinately, absolutely opposed to women taking up arms to defend the villages and absolutely refuses to learn any weapon to any degree for any reason related to warfare. She wants to keep tradition, not explore. As a child, she was very close to her little brother, Garth, who – unlike many boys – did not want to go with the men, but wanted to stay with his mother in the village. She swore to run away with him, and he had to be forced (and drugged, if I remember correctly) to be taken, while she was drugged to keep her in the village. It was in the aftermath of this trauma, that she and Lena became lovers, and that she became strictly adherent to Tradition, looking to it as the answer for everything. When Lena’s village votes for all the women to learn to fight at least a little, Maya chooses exile, with the dream of looking for Garth and their long-ago promise to run away together in her mind. Her relationship with Garth and the trauma of that has led to her resolving to never have a child of her own.
I loved and admired Maya, and her and Garth’s story made me hate the Empire and the women’s villages so much. At the same time, I really wished she could actually deal with things, instead of cowering in adherence to Tradition. She has courage, but she never finds whatever the support she needs is, to acknowledge the wrong done to her and Garth, and to look for some solution other than the Tradition that has harmed them and dictated their lives – or else their punishment – for them.
Callan, Casyn, and Colm are three brothers. Callan is the Emperor, Casyn is the horse-shoer sent to Lena’s village to teach the women of her village to fight in preparation from the invasion from Leste and he is also a general and something of a spymaster. Colm is a scholar and the Emperor’s advisor, and a castrate, made that way because he refused to fight. Alongside them is the Teannasach of Linrathe, the land to the north of the Empire across the wall, Donalch. Their motives and their ends are complicated and never fully revealed. There are times that each and all of Callan, Casyn, and Donalch seemed noble, and times that they made me want to hate them for putting their idea of what was in the good interests in the long term of the collective ahead of the people in their lives that they could know and love or who they were, in the moment. Casyn provoked a lot of that. He was tender at times, close and companionable towards Lena. The same was true of Callan. Yet the coldness and manipulation both of them enact, in their different ways, were disgusting to me. As Lena comes to, I hated the games and politics of Empire. As Cillian said he had no love for Empires and Emperors. It was almost worst with Casyn, because of how close he can be towards Lena and how she feels towards him.
Lastly, I come to what’s going to take the most space. Lena – and, later, with her, Cillian. There are times that first season in Tirvan (her village) when she doubts her decision to stay and fight, instead of look for Maya. When she doubts her reasons. Before it’s over, her friend, Tice, dies under her command, in addition to her having lost Maya in another way. Then, she loses Maya yet again in the interim between Empire’s Daughter and Empire’s Hostage, when she is living with Garth’s son and Maya comes, and after a few months asks her to leave because Maya will have nothing to do with someone who will fight. So she goes north to the Wall to join the women who have joined the army in holding back the attack from Linrathe, and tries to have a life where others make the decisions and she does not have to, because of the trauma from the decisions she has made, but it takes her a long time to realize – in a moment, almost – why she has been making the choices she has been. But it doesn’t have the feel when I summarize it that it has in the story, where you can almost feel Lena’s thoughts and discoveries. Almost live her life.
Callan and Donalch make a treaty to stop the war that is draining both the Empire and Linrathe, and as part of that, hostages are exchanged. Lena is one of them and she is sent to a Ti’ach, a house of learning, in Linrathe. That’s where she meets Cillian, who is cold and withdrawn and sometimes antagonistic and certainly not happy, among others. I liked Dagney, scholar and keeper and singer of stories, and Perras, the master-so-to-speak of the Ti’ach. I wanted Lena’s time with them and theirs with her, learning and contemplating the histories of their respective lands – and of the Empire of which both their lands, in different ways, hold echoes – to continue. But, instead, she ends up taken as prisoner with Donalch and Cillian and Dagney of the people of the land north even of Linrathe, to whom Linrathe pays tribute, whose new king is planning an invasion of both lands. Lena and Cillian escape and flee together to warn their peoples of the planned invasion, and in the process they steal a boat and Lena kills a man who tries to rape her. They are able to bring word in time, but they are considered guilty of violating the treaty. Meanwhile, Donalch is killed, and his more hide-bound brother becomes Teannasach of Linrathe. Lena and Cillian are made prisoners and treated as prisoners, and they are eventually condemned by the Emperor Callan to exile beyond the Empire. At this point, Lena and Cillian start to become friends and work together, as she admits to how they have been used, then almost discarded – even though exile instead of death is technically mercy, really they are being punished for trying to save the Empire and Linrathe, and if the livelihood of a family is to be accounted more worth than an Empire or a kingdom, everything everyone has been doing is all wrong and flawed from top to bottom, and Callan and Casyn are as guilty as anyone.
Empire’s Exile was almost my favorite. Lena and Cillian slowly open up towards each other, and there’s an enduring, lasting, committed quality to the bonds that form between them. I liked how she loves him but keeps her distance, waiting for him – and not waiting in the casual sense of the word. There was just so much love and patience and endurance between them – and a sort of vulnerability. As he learns to live, to enjoy life, to find hope and joy and step out of the bitter mockery he had walled himself in with and consigned him to. I really liked how they bloomed together. And then Lena gets hurt, and Cillian plays that role towards her in turn. They flourish in each other, keep the bitter things, the things that poison, at bay in each other. I loved how gracious and tender Cillian grew to be, and his joy in life. But one thing I really wished for them was to put their promises to each other above all else, no matter what. I’m doing a really, really bad job describing my feelings, and there aren’t even any quotes. With this book, I can’t think of a single line that stood out to me, certainly not one that could even be hoped to carry a little of what it meant in the book outside of context. It was the scenes, the story, the characters, the feelings, actions, choices. Sometimes a single scene stands out or captures and represents many more, but never a few lines or even a paragraph.
When Lena and Cillian are found by Turlo, a general of the Empire sent on a desperate mission for the bare possibility of aid, they are offered pardon from their exile and enlisted to help in that mission. And there was something that followed from that, that … later, to gain the help of the Empress of the East, Cillian “uses everything he has” in the diplomacy, implies to her that he is willing to take her hand, to marry her, and he thinks he is still keeping his promise to shelter Lena as much as he can all their days (for they each have a promise to the other that only they know) in doing this, but it would be a breach of their union and of his promise of constancy. It does not happen, he draws back from it, with the help of Lena and an old friend who loves him, Sorley, from the same Ti’ach as he is. But it has the feeling life sometimes has, of an opportunity missed, something unproven, something that could be solid … and will it ever have the chance to be so solid again? Earlier, he thinks or speaks that to shelter as best he can is all he can do. Shelter to Lena he can be, but he can’t necessarily protect or guard her, as that can be impossible the way the world works. And it seems to me, what he was doing with the Empress, was not an attempt to be that shelter to Lena, how she said he made her feel sheltered and he turned that into a promise, but an attempt to protect, guard.
Lena’s promise to him, I should share it now to match, was that, as long as she and he both lived, he would never walk alone, as he used to. And I liked how she kept that promise to him with Sorley, and drew him back. And the early days of their relationships and others in between. Their relationship isn’t based on sexuality, though it certainly has that element, and … I liked a lot about their relationship, on both of their sides. They are both so tender and loving and protective and yet open, letting the other choose and do what they must, towards each other. They’re friends, too, friends to shelter and never let the other walk alone.