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07 April 2010

Review: Empress of Mijak by Karen Miller

Last week I finished reading Karen Miller's Empress of Mijak (Godspeaker #1). I haven't taken that long to read a book in years. I was reading it every chance I got, and it still took me 10 days to read it. The syntax in conversations is different from Modern English. It is very blunt and forthright, without any flowery language and sometimes drops prepositions (but with no discernable pattern). The actual bones of the story (everything that isn't a conversation) is very well written, so it was the need to  jump backwards and forwards in my thinking patterns which slowed my reading down. The book is just over 500 pages which, whilst on the long side, would normally not take too long to read. I was finding that discouraging to start with, because I REALLY wanted to find out what happened. I am not used to waiting so long for the ending, but the book was fascinating and well written, it kept me reading. I never peek at the last pages of books I am reading, but I was seriously tempted with the Empress of Mijak.

The book starts out with an unwanted, unschooled, unwashed, unnamed, untamed “she-brat” who is sold by her father to slavers. She decides to name herself as Hekat at that moment. The head slaver, Abajai, continuously says “Hekat is precious and beautiful, she is god-touched.” A phrase which is repeated throughout the book, both by others and by Hekat herself. From that moment when she is lead to the camel instead of being chained with the other slaves for the walk through the wastelands she thinks she is better than all others, that she is somehow above them. The way she treats the other slaves is with contempt, and her behaviour and attitudes to everyone but Abajai is full of pride, contempt and pettiness. I found her to be a spoilt little brat. To start you think it is just because for the first time in her life someone is treating her as a human, as something of worth, as special. But in this matter Hekat never grows up. Throughout the entire novel you see Hekat acting with both pride and contempt. I still cannot work out is she is god-touched or demon-touched, or just pain insane. She is an utter sociopath with no true social or emotional attachments until she has her son Zandakar. She says earlier in the novel that she loved Abajai, but I think she liked him because he thought she was special. The second her scorns her she lashes out at him remorselessly. Hekat seems so solely focused on the god, but at the same time, she ultimately one of the most self-focused characters I have ever came across. And whenever she does something, she says continues it was the god. “I didn’t kill that man who shamed me, the god did it” despite she was the one with the blade in her hand (or hand holding the pendant etc). And she seems to get away with it, because she sees herself as the instrument of the god’s will (as do those close to her), hearing his voice in her mind whenever she needs to justify her actions. But at the same time, outside factors also seem to indicate her motivations. She is self important, selfish, vain and unfeeling. She is not an admirable protagonist, like you usually find in the majority of fiction, but one that you cannot love nor find anything admirable in her personality or actions (aside from the whole knife dancer component, and you KNOW how I love my weaponry!). Even the love of Zandakar is inherently selfish, as she sees him as an extension of herself. Reading Empress of Mijaki was confusing and frustrating as all hell, as I was constantly internally debating her sanity and motivations. Yet at the same time, I enjoyed the ride!

I personally am not sure if Hekat and the others are led by the god or a demon. I was given to even more suspicion of their influences in the last quarter of the novel when Zandakar becomes the Hammer and goes off to do war. I am convinced that Hekat is unstable, whether she is god-touched or demon-touched is another matter of debate. In the first part of the novel I thought she might be a sociopath, but despite it being an unhealthy relationship, she does love her eldest son. Whether this is because she sees him as an extension of herself or for his own person is debatable. Regardless of which you choose, I do think it is an extremely unhealthy relationship, and I cannot say that love is true and unselfish. I liked the other characters, especially Raklion Vortka and Zandakar. You could see how Hekat was constantly manipulating them, and yet hadn’t truly broken their spirits. They chose to love her, and only one did so blindly. Dmitrak was a product of his upbringing. I could say that I was surprised at his actions in the last chapter or so, but I would be lying.

The novel was so seductive despite the fact that I abhorred the main character and her machinations.  The Mijaki world is so fascinating and the characters and plots are so detailed and mysterious. It is very barren, very primal, very arid and desolate. The culture is rich and colourful, with a very strict socio-economic tiered system, ranging from slaves up to the warlord elite. Normally when I read fiction the cultures are so obviously harking back to societies in our past or present. An author can try to create a completely new culture, but they very often fail and just give a new name to the people, land, customs and artefacts. Karen Miller was successful. Whilst the culture seems vaguely reminiscent of a Middle Eastern culture, or perhaps one from the Steppes, the Gobi, even perhaps Medieval Himalayan cultures, there is no one thing that ties it into ANY culture I have ever come across. Myself having a background in both archaeology and anthropology means I normally can notice such things, and I am having trouble doing so with the Mijaki world. If I compare it to anything, I keep coming back to the Dune series, but I think that is because the lifestyle is so basic; nothing is taken for granted, life is harsh, and they deal with it. I read a review where the reader was positive that it was based on Assyrian cultures whilst at a city-state stage, but I would personally disagree with that assumption. Yes, the Assyrians were a bloody waring nation that celebrated the strength and might of their warriors, but a lot of cultures have these aspects. Other examples of this are the Spartans and the Mongols and I wouldn’t say that the Mijaki are wholly reminiscent of these either. If I was to make any parallel of Middle Eastern cultures, I would have said the Majaki had more in common with the Persians or Scythians, and not just for their attitudes towards war. However, I find just as many parallels in the Steppes, the Gobi Desert and Himalayan cultures as I do the Middle Eastern ones. The religion in this novel is also completely alien to me which was extremely refreshing. I keep scanning my memory banks for comparable religions, and all I can think of are some of the earliest religions, solely due to the iconography. I am seriously impressed with this book! The religion of the Mijaki god is filled full of iconography of the scorpion, as well as other deadly or scavenging desert creatures. The religion is based on a monotheic god who requires utter devotion and placating with blood and sacrifice. Important individuals (chosen ones) have personal relationships with the god, where he talks to them and gives them divine powers. He is seen as a guiding deity, but one which allows no lapse in behaviour, no matter how seemingly trivial. One lapse can result in a divine smiting (without human intervention) or, if lucky, harsh penance in the godhouses. The religious dogma also contains demons, which seduce people into sinning against the god. This is a major theme, as when ever a people or individual go against the Et-Raklion (or other Mijaki city-state) diarchy, that individual or group is seen as possessed by demons and is either killed by “divine” proclamation or “smitten” (brutal penance meted out by the godspeakers).  I would say the Mijaki culture is a diarchy, not a stratocracy, despite the warlord having absolute rulership over the people, I would also argue that the head godspeaker is the other half of the ruling party, he controls the religious aspects of the society, which is also arguably also an absolute rulership over the people. There is a lot of tension between the warlord and the head godspeaker when they perceive their roles overlap. An example of this is when they go to raze the first city, and the political/martial and religious realms have overlapped to the extent that they cannot decide whose task it is to raze the city. Despite this, they work in harmony, or at least with only personal tension, to govern first their city state, and later on, their Mijaki empire. You may think I have gotten too in depth with cultural, religious and political discussions, but this book is just so detailed that I had to delve into those waters. I think this is one of the reasons I found this book so fascinating! I haven't been this engrossed since I discovered Suzanne Collins!!

This is the first novel for the Aussie Reading Challenge, and one of the books of the Oceanic component of the Global Reading Challenge. I ordered the second book in the trilogy, The Riven Kingdom, as soon as I finished Empress of Mijak.
5/5 Stars 

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