I like a book that has something to say. That makes you think. One of the joys of fantasy stories is that they can take issues that are real and relevant and put them in a new context, giving the reader space to consider them outside their usual cultural environment, free from individual bias.
There is A LOT going on beneath the skin of Empire’s Daughter, and the more I think back on it, the more I find.
The story is set in ‘The Empire’ a country living under an extreme agreement called Partition, whereby all men serve in the military until retirement age, and all women live a peaceful, agrarian life in their villages, farming, fishing, smithing and raising children. Only during Festival, several times a year, do men come to the women’s villages for ‘liaisons’ intended to produce children. At 7, every boy is claimed by their father and taken away to be trained as a soldier. This agreement was reached several hundred years previously through an assembly designed to resolve the conflicting desires for peaceful or military life, which were apparently split along lines of sex.
The implications of this for the society of the Empire are fascinating. For a start, bisexuality is largely the norm, at least in the women’s villages. We don’t really see whether this is also true in the army, with the exception of meeting one soldier who is expressly gay.
Our main character is Lena, a 17-year-old fisherwoman who works a boat with her cousin and partner Maya. Their life is largely parochial. Lena has never left the village. She knows little of the outside world, beyond what she learns from visiting soldiers during Festival.
So, when a soldier, who was born in the village, arrives unexpectedly with news that the women are to be asked to train to fight, in order to protect their village, and the country, from a coming invasion, it proves a catalyst for huge conflict and change.
The village overwhelmingly votes to agree to the request, but at a cost. Several women dissent, one going so far as to accept expulsion rather than fight: Maya. Grieving for her departed lover, Lena is left to train for the coming invasion and adjust to her new reality. The first half of the book deals primarily with this, while the second follows the aftermath of the invasion and what it means for both Lena and the Empire. And it is a fascinating read.
Thorpe’s writing is by turns lean and beautiful. She tells the story efficiently, but also stops now and again to let us smell the flowers, painting their aromas vividly. I stopped numerous times to admire particularly lovely sentences. The worldbuilding is deep and extensive. You can feel how much research has gone into these ways of life, and thought to the implications of her society’s lifestyle.
At first, I felt the book was moving a bit too slowly, but I eventually realised that wasn’t it at all. What it does is earn the seismic changes that are coming. There is no instalove here, or epiphanic moments where a character suddenly changes. Lena’s evolution through the story is measured and so feels real. Her emotional development moves in increments, as it should, making her all the more real and relatable.
And then there are those underlying themes I mentioned. Where to begin? Off the top of my head, we cover things like: How does childhood trauma shape a personality? Can a divided country be brought back together, once split? Is individual freedom an acceptable sacrifice for collective safety? What happens when a country adheres slavishly to a tenet agreed hundreds of years ago? When does tradition become dogma? What effect can climate change have on a society? How does the degradation of education influence culture? What happens when we forget our own history, and how do we trust those who record it to do so impartially? Can a society functionally include those who refuse to accept democratic choices?
And there’s more. All questions as relevant today, here and now, as they are in Thorpe’s novel. So, while Empire’s Daughter is a deeply personal tale of Lena’s evolution, as she sees more of her world and grows with each new experience, it is also a tale of a country’s evolution, and a lens through which to consider our own present.
There is an inevitable question.
Is it fantasy?
I hate that I’m having to ask this question after enjoying the book so thoroughly, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t explore it.
There is no magic. No supernatural creatures. The flora and fauna of the Empire are our own. There is nothing otherworldly or ‘fantastic’ in this story. So, what sets it apart?
Geography, largely. The country of the Empire is entirely fictitious. Thorpe relates having spent a great deal of time in England and Scotland researching the landscapes, and this certainly bears true for the hostile northerners beyond the wall who have red hair and use words like ‘lassies’. The world and the story are full of classic genre tropes, and I’m sure will be enjoyed by fantasy readers. There are swords and battles, assassins bearing knives in the dark and long journeys punctuated by inns.
I found myself, in considering this, wondering whether something like The Last Kingdom is fantasy. Or is it just alternative history? Is alternative history intrinsically fantasy? Does alternative geography plus alternative history add up to fantasy?
I read that this book was rejected from two other competitions, one because it wasn’t a fantasy book and one because the competition did not accept fantasy. That seems entirely believable to me, because I think it probably sits in a no man’s land, where some will consider it fantasy and some will not.
I realised in hindsight that I had actually been wary of reading this book, because of the cover. It didn’t work for me and, with some thought, I realised that’s because it reminds me more of an academic history book than a fantasy book - and I wonder how many others might have had the same experience. I’m delighted to have been wrong about my own enjoyment, but again wonder if perhaps this is a book that doesn’t quite know exactly where it fits in a genre.
And maybe it doesn’t have to. Maybe we shouldn’t be worried about pigeonholing a book’s genre any more than we should about defining its characters’ sexuality. Indie publishing allows writers to mash up genres and subvert expectations, and that is certainly a good thing. But for the purposes of SPFBO, is it fantasy? I don’t know, is the answer.
What I do know is that it is an immersive, intelligent and resonant book that I recommend highly.