This book ought to have been right up my street; a non-medieval world, with limited magic, a slow pace driven by politics rather than endless battles, and a strong-minded female lead - what's not to like? In my case, the answer is: almost everything.
The opening felt surprisingly clunky and uncertain. Many fantasy works start with a dramatic event to draw the reader in, and leave the details of the background to wait for a quieter moment, but this tries to do both at once, with unconvincing results. To some extent it's necessary to explain the unusually high levels of required etiquette, which is required to account for the protagonist's unnatural calmness in a crisis, but the authors simultaneously tried to convey her deep emotions, and this made for a very uneven few chapters. And somehow the situation felt rather forced to me. Are there really no other members of the family? This seems oddly shortsighted in a hereditary system (lots of babies, people; how hard is that to understand?).
The whole story rests on the shoulders of Mara, the seventeen year old protagonist. Given that the story opens with her about to take lifelong vows at a religious order, she seems initially unsuited for the leadership role thrust upon her, and perhaps that would have been a more interesting line to follow. However, it soon becomes clear that she is the conventional spirited and ambitious protagonist, quite prepared to be ruthless to achieve her political aims, and also prepared to take risks and break with tradition where she deems it necessary. Unfortunately, this very ruthlessness makes her something of an unsympathetic character. She has no qualms, it seems, about killing off slaves, rebellious soldiers or anyone else who gets in her way, or simply to send a message to her rivals. And considering that the concept of honour is deeply embedded in this society, she has (in fact, they all have) a very curious sense of honour which allows her to do (apparently) whatever the hell she wants.
The other main characters are all very black and white. Her family servants are the ultimate in loyal retainers, willing to die for her, but also intelligent, resourceful, competent... you get the picture. Her husband, carefully selected solely to create a protective alliance and give Mara an heir, is portrayed as an uncaring and violent brute. Some attempt is made to paint a more subtle picture of Buntokapi later on, but it's really too late by this time. Her enemies are no more than ciphers: the rival leader, driven by long-standing feuds whose origins are lost in time; the stupid men driven by lust; the vengeful woman. Only the Warlord has seems like a genuinely complex character. The rest are no more than lightly sketched background the better to illuminate Mara's perfection .
And here we come to the real problem with this book. Everything Mara does, no matter how dangerous or risky, turns out implausibly well. This really isn't much of a spoiler, actually, since it's obvious right from the start that she will ultimately triumph, but I expected her to have some setbacks along the way. But no, everything works out exactly as she planned it and, honestly, this simply isn't interesting. She needs more warriors, so she goes out to recruit outlaws. She needs the cho-ja, she gets them. She wants her husband dead, so he dies. This was the final straw, for me. There were only three possible outcomes to Mara's nasty little plot against Buntokapi: global war, family war or the brutish, stupid husband who beats up his own wife suddenly turns all honourable and commits ritual suicide. I mean, really? All at once, he's being noble? And this man who can't control his own temper comes back to the wife who set him up and says magnanimously, 'Well, that was very clever, wife, you beat me fair and square there.' If it were me, I'd have gutted her first, and honour be hanged. What an evil witch. Ugh.
So at this point I'm seriously disappointed. But then there's a seemingly trivial interaction between two supposedly minor characters, at the end of which there's a reveal which changes everything. All of a sudden the political shenanigans become much more complicated and very interesting indeed. For a moment the book gleams with possibilities. Sadly the rest of the book isn't like this. And in fact, immediately after this we're back to Mara being terribly clever and underhanded and devious. I would like her a bit better if she were not so downright nasty to people. Yes, I know she has reasons to be cautious of anyone approaching her, but surely the honour system would deny the sort of ritual humiliation she indulges in.
I was really looking forward to reading this. It presses all the right buttons for me. I like a world that's not a mud-bespattered caricature of the middle ages. I like the system of honour and the rigid protocol. I like a book which builds slowly without leaping from one set-piece battle to the next. I like a story built around characters. And yet none of it worked for me. The protocol and honour seemed to be no more than a clever plot device. The slowness of the book made it draggy at times - there were whole chapters devoted to seemingly trivial events which I lost interest in long before their purpose was revealed. And I hated Mara - really, really hated her. Are we actually supposed to root for a heroine who devises such unpleasant - no, downright evil schemes? There is nothing at all likeable, to my mind, about such a cruelly manipulative person. I can see the attraction in a woman facing up to adversity with spirit and determination and yes, even ruthlessness, so other readers may enjoy it much better, but it's not for me. So two stars for effort, I suppose, grudgingly.