Author: Marian L Thorpe
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Gwenna, heir to Ésparias, is summoned by the Empress of Casil to compete for the hand of her son. Offered power and influence far beyond what her own small land can give her, Gwenna’s strategy seems clear – except she loves someone else.
Nineteen years earlier, the Empress outplayed Cillian in diplomacy and intrigue. Alone, his only living daughter has little chance to counter the Empress’s experience and skill. Aging and torn by grief and worry, Cillian insists on accompanying Gwenna to Casil.
Risking a charge of treason, faced with a choice he does not want to make, Cillian must convince Gwenna her future is more important than his – while Gwenna plans her moves to keep her father safe. Both are playing a dangerous game. Which one will concede – or sacrifice?
Rating: Personal/relationship-focused, Vivid characters
Note: This review contains spoilers for other books in the Empire’s Legacy series.
I have a feeling my whole “rating” thing is falling to pieces, for which I apologize! Each of the Empire novels by Marian feel very different, while at the same time being similar in other ways, and this is one I don’t think I am likely to forget in a long time. It did not lend itself to provoking the same kind of personal thoughts and questioning for me that Empire’s Bard did, but I enjoyed it no less thoroughly.
Empire’s Heir is dual PoV, written through the eyes of Gwenna, and her father Cillian. I’ve been really interested in Cillian for a long time, so it is nice to get some of his perspective. Family and relationship struggles, grief, and duty/responsibility are all themes that rear their heads, in this story about Cillian and Lena’s family and the challenges they face.
Something I really enjoyed is the way those interpersonal conflicts are raw. Cillian loves Lena dearly, and she loves him, but there are things between them, things Cillian has done that could drive them apart, as well as issues and needs that Lena has. It’s a story of a family with issues any family might have, and also issues most families might not (or are they human issues, everyone experiences to a greater or less degree, in more or less obvious ways?). Of oaths sworn, and what it means to keep them before those you love. Of responsibility and duty, and what you believe to be your responsibility, and what is not. Of human fears and concerns and responses, Lena’s belief that the goddess to whom she prayed for victory in a battle is responsible for the death of her youngest child, and the different responses of everyone in their family to grief. How, in their different responses to grief, they sometimes hurt each other very badly without meaning to, and try to comfort each other.
Of how people grow and change, and what once was stable may not be permanent, and a new stability has to be found.
I enjoyed the treatment of relational issues that don’t have an easy solution, and the anguish that causes among people who are trying to love each other. How other people are hurt when those they love have problems with each other, and what it requires to work through those problems in a way that’s loving. The journey of two people discovering what love is, and what the nature of the relationship and love between them is.
And perhaps my favourite thing about the book was the dynamic between Gwenna and Cillian and the Empress (and her son). Cillian has sworn to Lena that he will not let their children becomes pieces in the game of empire, and they had impressed upon Gwenna that she is to marry because she wants to, for love. She is not to consider herself bound to marry someone she does not want to for the sake of empires. That is not her duty. But with the Empress, Eudekia (I can say I did not like the Empress – this is cruel!) leading her to believe that her father will be killed if she does not marry her son – who she finds to be a fine intellectual partner, but whom she does not love, while she may love someone else, who most certainly does love her – Gwenna is prepared to make that choice. And she follows in her father’s footsteps of lying to those around her, at least in the sense of withholding salient truths, not willing to burden them with her choice. So it takes a while for Cillian to figure out what is going on.
Here is a piece of the exchange between them:
“Not then, and not now. I promise you that, mo nihéan. But I am guilty of more than one betrayal; you know that. Why would another shock you so much?”
“Because . . . ” She took a breath. “Because you love Mathàir. And Sorley. And they love you. But you were trying to save their lives, so would it have been wrong?”
“No. It would not have been.” I watched confusion cloud her face. “Sometimes sacrifice is called for, Gwenna. Sometimes so is betrayal. But not this time.” I held out an arm. She slipped off her chair to sit on the floor beside me like her mother did, leaning against me. “I am nearly an old man, and you are very young. Do not marry the Prince for this reason. Do not give up love to possibly gain me a few more years of life.” I stroked her hair. “That is not your responsibility.”
She looked up at me, no tears blurring her vision. “But I would know what I had done, if I ignored the threat to you. How would I live with the guilt?”
Not, I hoped, as I had in the years after betraying Linrathe for Sorley, growing bitter and cynical, hating myself and the men that had forced my choice. “I have told you what I think you should do. If there is a sacrifice to be made, let it be mine.”
She twisted away from my hand, knelt. Our eyes were level. “No,” she said, her voice as sharp and hard as a blade. “I will hear no talk of lives sacrificed. I will decide by weighing what could happen, calculating risk and reward for the greatest good. To take the long view, as the Principe I may be one day must. It is what you taught me, is it not?”
One of the things I really liked about this book was Lena and Cillian’s focus on Gwenna’s freedom to love who she wishes. This is a series that definitely has a bit to do with duty, but that is something that is so refreshing to see, that emphasis on freedom and love. I don’t think this is a series or a book that strives to provide answers to all questions, only to show possibilities and provoke thought. And I liked that that emphasis on freedom and love is shown in this book, since it is something I rarely see, and it provides a balancing view, a balancing thought to be considered, against the expediency shown in some other places throughout the series.
Something else that deserves a moment is the treatment of trust and secrets and love in a relationship. One of the ways that Cillian contributes to the problems in his relationship with Lena that almost – apparently – drive them apart is all the secrets he has kept, to protect her from the charge of treason he fears faces him. I’m not sure if I should give away the whole “plot” but the places of secrets and trust in a relationship, and burdens freely shared for love, or divisions drawn between people when protection becomes more important than closeness, is a theme explored.
Cillian’s flaws and personal thoughts are something I enjoyed seeing. What follows is going to be as rambling and apparently disconnected as usual! He’s crippled because of injuries in a previous war (even though he didn’t fight), and that … situation … is in the background of everything that pertains to him: in the background, I say, because it’s not made a big deal of, except for when it is a big deal, but it’s quietly, unobtrusively there, except in the ways that it is obtrusive. A part I noticed is when he thinks that he’s thought he reconciled himself to certain limitations and failings, as part of living with his injury, but he realized that acceptance may have … limits he had not considered before.
And there’s the way that he thinks through his own motivations: Does his own personal desire not to be charged with treason have something to do with some of the choices he makes in negotiations with the Empress? Or is he making sure Gwenna has choices, letting her have the choice to marry the Prince if that is what she and he both want? Or a little bit of both?
This is a story about what it means to try to love. Established love in families between people who’ve been together for decades, and new love that’s just discovering what it is, and old love that’s still discovering what it is. Freedom and trust and secrets and choices. Accept what fate brings, or fight for what you desire? And a child growing up, to make her own choices.
It also has political intrigue too, of course, but to me that’s not the focus, but the setting for the story.
I can definitely say I loved this one! I wish I could write a fuller review for it, but I’m not sure how much that helps people, and I do have to balance my time and attention with different things.