In the first chapter of Emperor Mage, Daine travels with her friends to Carthak on a diplomatic mission that soon prove to be horribly complicated. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to start Emperor Mage.
Chapter One: Guests in Carthak
[Note: I don’t know that it necessarily needs a trigger warning, but I do talk about race, ethnicity, and culture in today’s review. It’s pretty tame, so I don’t think it would actually trigger someone, but I thought it would be considerate to warn y’all just in case you might need to sit this one out. Enjoy! – Mark]
[ANOTHER IMPORTANT EDIT: It seems that no matter how many places I say this or how many times I mention it, the message hasn’t gotten out. So! I am reading all the Tortall books, including the short stories, as well as the Circle of Magic books. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE STOP POSTING SPOILERS ABOUT THESE THINGS WITHOUT USING ROT13. It’s gotten so bad that my mods begged me to make a sparkly, bolded text that barrel-rolled just to communicate this to you. DO. NOT. POST. SPOILERS. I would like to read the comments more, but I have had to stay away because of the spoilers! Please don’t make me resort to terrible Blingee announcements, I would hate that. Thanks! – Mark]
[PS: I would actually not hate making Blingee announcements. I should correct that. – Mark]
I like that, right off the bat, this book is distancing itself from the previous two. Emperor Mage is immediately a political book. Which is not to suggest that the rest of The Immortals or even Song of the Lioness weren’t political! Tamora Pierce has always used political intrigue in the books I’ve read. Hell, there was so much of that in Lioness Rampant, especially when it came to the precarious and awkward issue of Duke Roger’s resurrection. That was politics.
There’s often a misunderstanding about what politics implies. I mean, before I dropped out of college, I’d been a political science major for three years, and I can’t even recall how many people thought that all I learned about was politicians. I am not even exaggerating here. (Also, I feel like y’all probably believe I had 40 different majors in college, so let me spell this out so that it makes sense: I started off as an English major with an emphasis on Creative Writing, bailed on it after two semesters because I hated the program at Cal State Long Beach, and then declared a dual major of Political Science and Religious Studies because I wanted to learn more about things that made me angry and guarantee that I’d never have a paying job again. I JEST, but no, seriously, I had no job prospects near the end of my schooling. Okay, enough of this tangent.) I also know that if you describe a show or a book as dealing with “politics,” people’s brains immediately turn off. Which… okay, to be fair, it’s not always the most interesting thing! Especially if you live in a country like, for example, the United States, you’re bombarded with political tomfoolery on a daily basis. Why would you want to read a book about that?
But I see politics as about how humans interact with one another. It’s not even necessary for it to be attached to governments. We’ve got identity politics, the politics of a group dynamic, and what we see in Emperor Mage so far is the politics of diplomacy. I was totally wrong about the method in which Daine would go to Carthak, and I never once expected that she and her friends would travel there for peace. I always assumed that they’d be forced into some horrific battle with the Carthakis, but I’m clearly more unprepared than usual in this case.
It’s through this framing device that Pierce finally introduces us to the Carthaki people. (I imagine we’ll learn even more about them and their culture in later chapters, so I’m referring to what we do find out in chapter one.) I am super stoked about an entire cast of characters who are people of color, though I must admit that it utilizes a trope that I’m not too fond of. A big reason why I stayed away from fantasy growing up is that anyone who looked like me in these books and movies was always the villain or the designated “other,” the distant foreigner from a strange culture. This was especially confusing to me because of my upbringing. As a transracial adoptee,* I was taken away from the culture I was born into, and unfortunately, my mother was not at all interested in letting me discover how my culture and ethnicity were tied to one another. Despite that my brother and I were the only brown kids at our elementary school in Boise, she raised us to tell other people that we were white. She didn’t want us to stand out, to be associated with any culture that wasn’t “white” or “American.” I’m sure you can imagine how confusing this must have been for my brother and I! Because the kids at school most certainly did not accept that we were white. I heard my first racial slur by the time I was six. When I moved away from Idaho at the age of eight, I already knew what it was like to be bullied and to be a loner because of who I was. (And oh god, once I knew of my queerness as an othering factor a couple years later, it was like a maelstrom of terrible. But that’s another story!)
So, I came into my own identity with a lot of pain and confusion, so navigating and unpacking all this nonsense in my brain has been a long and hurtful process. It was bad enough that I felt like I didn’t have a culture that I belonged to, and then it felt doubly weird to try and get into fantasy or RPG tabletop games and feel rejected yet again. It was like I didn’t belong in either world, and I know that’s a huge reason why I swore off fantasy as a genre for so long.
These tropes are still present in a lot of fantasy books, and even George R.R. Martin, who adores flipping tropes, still uses them. In a sense, you can see that arrangement here in the beginning of Emperor Mage, but Pierce does a couple things that make me a lot more comfortable reading this:
1) She opens with the point of view of the Carthaki people.
One of the biggest faults I have with people of color in fantasy worlds is that they are dehumanized or reductively simplified – often unintentionally so – in order to exist in the background. Now, I admit that’s a problem that’s generally present in a lot of works that deal with good and evil. It’s easier to make a group evil if they aren’t developed and humanized. (Hello, critical race theory!) But what I’m referring to is more than just lazy writing. It’s a form of cognitive dissonance when it comes to writing about a culture to which you don’t belong to.
So, right off the bat, I appreciate that Pierce isn’t doing this. Kaddar is a person, he has his own interests, motivations, and irritations. Even if the trope is used here, I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt for the time being because I can see we’re going to spend time with these people in a way that isn’t instantly dismissive of them.
2) Their culture isn’t criticized.
Daine has a few prejudicial thoughts here. The whole bit where she thinks the Carthaki court has “alien” names made me frown internally, but I’m willing to accept that Daine is going to think these people are weird because she’s never been here. She has her preconceived notions about the Carthaki people, but I can already see how Pierce is etching away at that. She does this by narrating and describing them without doing so in a way that comes across as “LOL THESE PEOPLE ARE DIFFERENT ISN’T THAT WEIRD.” Her descriptions about their clothes and behavior are very matter-of-fact. Yes, these people are different, and she doesn’t ignore that, but she doesn’t treat them as a joke, either.
Once we switch to Daine’s point of view, it’s clear that she’s got a lot to navigate through herself. As the various Tortall officials (Duke Gareth OH MY GOD!!!) discuss what it is that they need to do in Carthak, I could tell that Daine was going to have a hard time following her orders. It’s not that she’s rebellious, though. It’s that she has to be there, not draw attention to herself, and not speak up if she thinks she sees something wrong. That’s going to be super hard WHEN EVERY ANIMAL IN TORTALL GREETS HER AT THE DOCKS. Just by the very nature of who she is, this isn’t going to go well, is it? Even when Daine does meet Kaddar, what happens? He calls attention to her by asking about Kitten. i mean, for real, SHE HAS A DRAGON.
It also doesn’t help that the goddamn badger shows up, being all ~mysterious~ and ~vague.~ Why do mystical beings always speak so ambiguously? I’m gonna go write a story where this never happens because it’s not a good way to communicate! I’m glad that Daine is frustrated with the badger god doing this very thing because… dude, she can’t turn back and leave! Oh fuck, what are the gods going to do? What has Emperor Ozorne done to enrage the gods enough that they’re considering doing something to the entire Carthaki realm? I mean, this is even more nerve-wracking once you remember that Daine is going to have to work with Ozorne daily to help heal his birds. I imagine this is how we’ll learn what kind of person he is, but I’m worried Daine won’t be able to hold her tongue if the guy is an asshole. Actually, she might accidentally call on animals to do something to him, right? SHIT. What if this is related to that weird “gift” that the badger gave her? I’M SO CONFUSED.
I’m hoping that Kaddar is actually kind of awesome. I’m intrigued by him. I can tell that I’m going to like Lindhall a lot, though I admit I don’t know much about him at this point, beyond him wanting to know more about animals. It’s a good start. I’m also interested to see how this book is going to deal with the slavery issue. I think it’ll be the main thing Daine has a problem with and what will unravel her attempt to be diplomatic. I mean, it’s portrayed fairly brutally in the text. I wonder how it came about that Carthaki developed a slave trade. Where do their slaves come from? Are they from their own citizenry? WHO KNOWS. Oh god, I will say I’m a bit nervous to see how this is portrayed? But again, I’m willing to give this the benefit of the doubt until I read more of the book.
So, while it was shocking at the time, I am now thinking about how not shocking it is that Daine pretty much immediately draws unneeded attention to herself in the very first chapter. The animal greeting at the docks was bad enough, but when she jumps in the Zekoi to save a pygmy marmoset from certain death by crocodile, I SHOULD HAVE SEEN IT COMING. Oh god, I love Daine so much, and I love that she totally embarrassed herself to save an animal. I don’t care, I respect her so much. Plus, now we have a new animal character! ALL HAIL ZEK!
Finally, this chapter ends with more confusion. I can’t even begin to surmise what that whole thing with the tiger rug was. In the video, I theorized that it might have to do with the gift the badger god gave her, but I don’t have nearly enough pieces to make this make any sense at all. The rug isn’t an animal body anymore! How can it come back to life? This is not like when Daine can heal and injured or dead animal with her magic. At least most of their body is still there. Plus, we haven’t seen Daine’s magic pulled out of her since Wild Magic. So what the hell is going on?
I am so unprepared, y’all.
* I don’t even know if they truly exist anymore or if it was just a bunch of trolling on Tumblr, but I swear to Mithros if any of you believe you are transracial – i.e., you believe you were born into the wrong race – you are most definitely a racist and trans-appropriative butthead. This term – transracial – is literally the only thing I have to help me cope with my upbringing. Do not take it away from me.
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