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An interesting idea with a bad execution
How often have you read a fantasy novel in which religion played a major role? I'm not talking about the presence of a priest as a minor character as a concession to the pre-modern setting. I mean a story that really examines the role of religion in a society, where it actually drives the characters' actions, rather than being a background detail. Yes, there's stuff like Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels, but most of the time, the religion is just a background detail. What Karen Miller has done here is placing religion front and center. It's a refreshing idea, but the results are mixed.

The first book, Empress of Mijak, is by far the most interesting. Moving away from a traditional fantasy setting, Miller presents Mijak: a harsh society based on cultures like the Sumerians and the Hittites with an oppressive religion that permeates every detail of the inhabitants' lives. It is a triumph of worldbuilding and I really enjoyed the first half of the novel. However, by the time I neared the end I had grown rather tired of the characters' highly formalistic speech patterns. Also, the constant interference of the god took a lot of tension out of the story. At no point during the second half did I feel like Hekat was in any real danger.

The Riven Kingdom introduces us to Ethrea, a bog-standard medieval fantasyland. It's an easier read than Empress, but it is much less interesting. Again, divine interference takes a lot of tension out of the story. Too little happens in this book to justify spending 700 pages on it and there are too many repetitive conversations that don't give us any new information or insight but merely pad out the story.

And then there's Hammer of God. Dear Chalava, the first 600 pages is almost nothing but repetitive conversations. If I have to read about one more council meeting... The final clash between Mijak and Ethrea is wrapped up rather quickly, although sastisfyingly brutally.

What was Karen Miller trying to say with this trilogy? That religion can be a force for both great good and great evil? That you'll never lose with God at your side? In the end, none of the protagonists' journeys really resonated with me and the whole thing left me feeling curiously empty.
As someone who is writing a cycle of stories with an activist religion, I really wish more authors would explore the subtleties of belief rather than make all priests Sinister Ministers (or worse) or the religion an exploitative force. It occurs to me it would be more radical, I think, to make a fictional priest a main hero rather than a villain. Miller wrote a commentary (printed in my ediiton of Empress) that stated what she was trying to do but in both books that I have read - and I'm not convinced enough that there is any significant twist ending to go much further with the series after the second book - religion is exploitative of the masses and there are few, if any, Good Shepherds to really explore religion as a whole and put the case both for and against. The two main priests, Nagarak and Marlan, are naked powermongers, and even the subsidiary priests do not project an honest alternative. So although I think Miller was trying very hard to explore religion (I wouldn't go so far to say 'deconstruct') she ends up just stereotyping priests as corrupt and manipulative.

I can see where she was going with Empress in particular, and I thought it was a good book. But all the same I want something a bit more from a series explicitly claiming to explore religion as a concept.
comment #17003 Crowqueen 28th Nov 12
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