BOOK REVIEW Empress

By Karen Miller. Hell on Middle-earth

Author: Karen Miller

Publisher: Orbit • 752 pages • £16.99

ISBN: 978-0-316-00835-8

Rating:

An Australian newspaperrecently slated Sarah Hall’s literary sci-fi The Carhullan Army and other such female-centric dystopias for perpetuating negative male stereotypes. Hopefully that reviewer hasn’t read the first book in Sydney resident Karen Miller’s Godspeaker series…

It’s set in the same world as her Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duet, but this time takes place in the patriarchal, medieval-style land of Mijak, where women are routinely oppressed and executed if they don’t give birth to enough sons. Miller’s tale centres on Hekat, a wretched she-brat who rises from a lowly slave to become the mighty Boudica-esque empress of the title. She shows resourcefulness from a tender age, taking her name from her derogatory nickname “hellcat”, and is immediately deemed special by the slave trader who purchases her from her abusive father.

Unfortunately, the opening sections chronicling Hekat’s early years are relentlessly dour and bleak as every hardship imaginable is piled upon her and her fellow slaves, who even have to save their urine for the trader to sell. After such a brutal upbringing, Hekat eventually evolves into a cruel and narcissistic warrior queen, who evokes little sympathy.

Miller evokes none of the sense of wonder embodied by classic fantasy from Tolkien to China Miéville. Indeed, at times Empress owes more to camp prehistoric capers like 10,000 BC than The Lord of the Rings. Some clunky dialogue doesn’t help things and a scene where Hekat’s father rapes her mother would win any literary bad sex award if the events it depicts weren’t so repellent. Not the best.

Stephen Jewell

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