Book Review: Empire’s Daughter

Empire's Daughter cover used by permission from Marian Thorpe

Description from the Author: “But the world changes. In all the women’s villages of the Empire, this week or next, a soldier like myself will arrive to ask to live in the village, to take up a trade.” Casyn paused, for a breath, a heartbeat. “And to teach you and your daughters to fight.”

With those words, the lives of Lena, fisherwoman of Tirvan village, and her partner Maya change irrevocably. Torn apart by their responses to this request, Maya chooses exile; Lena chooses to stay to defend her village and the Empire, although the rules of the Partition Assembly many generations earlier had divided and circumscribed the lives of men and women. Appointed to leadership, Lena’s concepts of love and loyalty are challenged as she learns the skills of warfare, and, in the aftermath of battle, faces the consequences of her choices. Leaving Tirvan to search for Maya, Lena is drawn into the intrigues and politics of the Empire, forcing her to examine what she most truly believes in.

Book Review (I received a copy in exchange for a review):

This is easily one of the most intriguing books I’ve read all year. While it is an adventure novel, and the main character, Lena, does learn to fight–her team is actually the one assigned to track down any invaders who might be left after the battle takes place, so she is somewhat of an assassin, I suppose–it is a thoughtful book. This is not another fast-paced, action-heavy Divergent or Throne of Glass-type book, and the main character is not your typical, tough female–bristling with weapons in the thick of the fight and showing up every man around. Instead, the story focuses on what would happen in a small fishing village where very old traditions are suddenly overturned by the threat of invasion and what real people would do in response to such a crisis.

So here’s a closer look at this indie-published gem, looking at its Narration, Content, Characters, Artwork, World Building, and my Overall Response.

Narration: 5 out of 5. The pacing could be a little slow, but I thought it suited the time period. Tirvan is set in a kind of alternate-world England, well before the Anglo-Saxon invasion, so the people are tied to the land and live gentle lives. They fish, gather, farm, hunt, and herd, and the pacing reflects the tempo of their lives. Something exciting doesn’t happen on every page; instead, you are given time to soak in the nature of the world and what’s at stake if the invasion succeeds.

I’d compare it to Child of a Hidden Sea by A. M. Dellamonica in terms of pacing and focus. Both books are more thoughtful, though Ms. Dellamonica’s book has more action sequences due to the nature of the plot. That being said, Lena isn’t a naturalist, so while there are descriptions of the land, buildings, and boats, the focus is on what the characters are thinking and doing.

Content: 5 out of 5. I really appreciated how Ms. Thorpe handled the adult themes of the book. As a result of the invasion and Maya’s choice to leave Tirvan (and her), Lena is forced to consider the nature of government, ethics, warfare, violence, sexuality, intimacy, and betrayal, and each weighty concept is given it’s proper due.

War is painted as horrible–yet we aren’t forced to soak in it for pages on end. Sex happens–at least, heterosexual sex happens (due to the plot, homosexual sex wasn’t an option for the main character, but it probably was happening between some of the characters)–yet we aren’t given intimate or crude information on the encounters.  The book doesn’t pretend it has all the answers for these difficult topics; it just presents Lena’s journey in grappling with them.

Characters: 4 out of 5. I felt like this was the weak point for the novel. There were so many secondary characters that it was very hard to keep track of them, and Lena was dealing with so much that she tended to be rather reserved. (At least, her behavior was reserved, but the story was told in first person, so that helped us get to know her.)The people felt real enough, but it didn’t feel like Lena paid that much attention to who these other characters were, how they looked, and spoke, and moved (with the exception of one of Lena’s friends, whose movements were much noted; she was a dancer and compared to a cat, at times).

Plus, the names didn’t help: Tice, Tali, Kira, Sara, Gille, Maya, Dessa, Gwen, Kate, Minna, and Ranni…I almost longed for a Gwendolyn or a Katherine or Minerva, anything to make them longer and a little more distinguishable from each other. Within the village, Lena could meet any of these women at any moment, so it wasn’t as though there were locations to keep them apart. Still, once you got far enough into the story, the names were easier to remember, but halfway through, I was still having to remember who was Tice and who was Tali.

Artwork: Subjective. I thought the cover was very engaging, and gave a hint of the time (the horse was shaggy, like Lena’s hair, an indication that, in the world of the story, more time is spent in survival than looks). And there was something very “iron age” about the cast of Lena’s face, though that could be just me.

One thing that bothered me, though, was Lena’s outfit. It looked far too form-fitting for anything pre-spandex and the 20th century.

World Building: 5 out of 5. This was the most interesting part of the novel. In Lena’s Empire, long ago, the women decided that they would send the men out of all their villages to serve in the Empire’s army while the women kept the villages running back at home. Thus, the women do all the farm, fishing, and hunting work, and once a boy is seven, he leaves home forever to go and live with the men.

The biggest result of this was that men and women live separate lives, and the invasion throws them back together. Aside from two yearly festivals where partnerships are formed (the Empire must have new generations, or it’d die off), they have little to do with each other, so the women have partnerships, both sexual and business, with other women of their village.

In some ways, it was almost like homosexuality was the norm in this world, and monogamous heterosexuality (or, even, repeat heterosexuality, as most women had different festival partners whenever they had children) was unheard of. It made for some very interesting dynamics, especially as Lena meets and gets to know men. She had that much more to think about in terms of relationships and what she wanted and needed from intimacy and sexuality.

And the novel had some modern elements worked in, like hot baths (from a natural spring) and contraception (from a kind of herb), which made the story that much more relevant to a modern audience still dealing with the same themes Lena and her world faced.

Overall Response: 19 out of 20, for a total of 4.75. If you enjoy historical fantasy (there is no magic), or New Adult fiction, I’d definitely recommend this book. I think it’d make a great Young Adult novel as well, but there will be readers from that category who will get lost in the slower, thoughtful pacing. (Also, this would make a great book for a book club; so many topics for discussion and analysis.)

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Copyright Andrea Lundgren 2015

Photo Courtesy of Marian Thorpe

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