Aieee! You’re looking at a nice painting of a forest. Seems pretty good, nicely detailed, and you are thinking it is pretty realistic. But you make the mistake of looking at it a little closer and it all starts to fall apart. It is like the painter has a good idea of what a forest looks like from a distance, but it’s a little fuzzy on the details. Looking closely you realize the painter doesn’t have a clue what individual trees should look like. Little details are wrong, hidden well if skimmed over but glaring if ones eye rest on it too long. This is the world that Karen Millar has built in ‘Empress.’ While incredibly interesting the world is built almost lazily, changing at times to fit the author’s needs. Throw in some strange language choices and a complete lack of interesting characters and you will find one frustrating book.
Aieee! A girl with no name is sold into slavery. She is told she is a jewel and is taken from wastelands into a big city. She learns her fate is to be sold again as a bed slave and mutilates her face while running away. The rest of the book tells of her rise in power in a land where the bloodthirsty god is always present, Godspeakers roam the streets smiting sinners and warlords get ready for battle. It is a nasty land full of nasty people.
Aieee! I want to start with a confession; I didn’t go into the book with the best intentions. Nothing to do with the author, I actually found this book on the recommendation list of an author who’s opinion I often enjoy. But when picking what to read next I skimmed a lot of reviews in which smug reviewers tell others that the reason they didn’t like this book is because they just didn’t get it. “You’re not supposed to like the characters, it is the story of the villain, and it just didn’t fit your expectations.” Taking it as a challenge in a way I wanted to see if these reviewers were right; after all I have a history of enjoying books with unlikeable protagonists. My conclusion is this; while not terrible there are a lot of reasons to dislike this book other than unlikable characters.
Aieee! Start with what was good. I actually liked the dominated nature of the religion on the land. An ever present god in a consistent battle with demons. Know what I really like? The way the demons are often trying to persuade “sinners” to do things that most of us would consider the good thing, while the god is looking for death and destruction. It gives us a vision that maybe the god is just the strongest voice of the moment, not the only power in the land. I liked the early portion of Hekat’s story in which she is still on her rise to power. Her decision to not be slave to anyone but the god and the extreme ends she is willing to take to ensure that it happens.
Aieee! But there are so many other things that didn’t work well. I am not one that usually dwells on writing style but it was pretty bad in this case. Look, I understand that the people in your made up land don’t speak English, and you are allowed to change some sentence structure to convey that, but constancy is important if that is your goal. So when the world is using a pretty cool time systems based around fingers of the sun, meeting another tribe who uses the word “dusk” snaps me right out of your world and back into my own. It is going to take more than run on sentences and the phrase “I think I did not” repeated on every page. My belief is broken when a grammar lesson involves proper English in a land with its own language.
Aieee! This book had the most inconsistent time line imaginable. The first two thirds flowed pretty well, and then we get time jumps between chapters. Characters that shouldn’t matter suddenly became important. A jumbled mess is made of the last fifth of the book, with one character introduced solely to be stuffed in the refrigerator a short time later. A grim but realistically violent book is turned into a grind-house picture. All the good will I was willing to give the book is burned out by the end. A decent quick moving book with some forgivable quirks turned into a slog by the end.
Aieee! According to my kindle the phrase “aieee” was present forty seven times in the book. It sure felt like it was on every single page.
A four star beginning with a two star end. Split the difference. I won’t seek out the rest of the trilogy, but there is a possibility I would give the second book a try if it fell into my hands.
3 stars. But just barely.