Karen Miller took the fantasy world by storm with her debut "Kingmaker, Kingbreaker" duology, with both "The Innocent Mage" and "The Awakened Mage" selling well and getting good reviews in many places, including The Bookbag. Whilst I missed those, I'd heard enough good things about her work to be excited about "Empress", the first in a planned trilogy of "Godspeaker" novels.
In a part of Mijak known only as "The Savage North", a young girl is resigned to a life of beatings, hunger and being unloved and unwanted, largely for having been born female. She is saved from this life by the arrival of two traders, Abajai and Yagji who take her back to their home city of Et-Raklion. Hekat, as she has named herself, thinks she is there as their favourite, but is upset to discover they have bought her as a slave.
Not seeing this as an improvement on her old life, she runs away, determined to become something more. We follow Hekat as she seeks to improve her lot which, given that she seems to have boundless ambition, is something she is never quite satisfied with. Believing that she is chosen by the God, Hekat will use anything and anyone to make sure she gets to where the God has told her she can be.
"Empress" is possibly one of the bloodiest fantasy novels I remember reading for quite some time. The Mijak God demands regular blood sacrifices, in much the same way as the Old Testament Christian God. If something important is to happen in Mijak, then the godspeakers make even larger sacrifices and omens are read in the entrails of slaughtered animals. Whilst I accept that this can happen, the constant and frequent detailing of these sacrifices did feel a little unnecessary and if anyone is a little squeamish, this could be a bit unsettling.
In addition to this, the scope of Mijaki life is a lot narrower than in many fantasy novels. If they are not involved in activities around the god, then they are at war. Apart from Hekat's journey to Et-Raklion, there isn't a lot more depth to the story than either being at war with another part of Mijak or preparing for the next invasion. Hekat's sole purpose in life seems to be total control of Mijak and the story follows her step by step in her attempts to achieve this aim.
The narrow scope of the novel also only allows for a narrow cast of characters. Whilst the major characters are well drawn and distinct, outside Hekat and the senior members of Mijaki society she deals with they seem to blend into each other. The warriors and godspeakers are referred to merely as part of a collective, unless they are specifically required for the story.
For me, unfortunately, this made the whole thing feel somehow superficial. Hekat is obsessed by power, which has made her very arrogant and difficult to like. There are more likable characters around her, but these are generally bent to her will and it's impossible to like them more, as they tend to be downtrodden. There is no real hero here, no-one you can feel much sympathy for and certainly no-one you can really cheer on. This, combined with the constant cycle of war and blood sacrifice, makes "Empress" a tough read, as there isn't a point where you wonder what's going to happen next or look forward to it, especially once the course of the story has been set.
The language used does not assist in making things flow, either. Hekat is uneducated, at least at the beginning of the story, which makes her use of language very fractured. This takes some getting used to and I had to re-read some passages to ensure I understood what she was trying to say. She does eventually learn more, but she retained a habit of referring to herself in the third person and her arrogance seemed to increase with her knowledge, which still made her utterances slightly distasteful to read as it's not a character trait I like.
Karen Miller was trying to create a strong character and has succeeded, but Hekat wasn't someone I warmed to, especially in comparison to Fiona McIntosh's Ana in her "Percheron" trilogy, who manages to be a strong character without being unlikeable. Perhaps I would feel more positive towards Hekat without this point of comparison, but I never felt close to her and, as a result, I didn't settle into the book and can't claim to have enjoyed it.
On the plus side, "Empress" is a self contained book, which means I don't now feel under pressure to read on as I have done with other series. Whilst the ending leaves things open for further progression, it also provided a decent stopping point and it's not immediately obvious to see how the story will continue from here, particularly for another two volumes.
It may be that someone who has enjoyed Karen Miller's work before will enjoy "Empress", but there was so much about it that failed to appeal to me. It's well written and the main characters are very distinctive and I suspect that had Hekat been a more likeable lead character or if Mijaki society had been a little less bloodthirsty, I would have enjoyed it more than I did. However, if you are already a fan of Karen Miller from her earlier works, or have a particular enjoyment of this kind of thing, prices of 99 pence from eBay or 90 pence in the Amazon Marketplace mean you don't have a lot to lose by trying it, even if you may have more to gain by reading something else.