… and more problems. Emperor Mage is the third book in Tamora Pierce’s Immortals Quartet. We’ve been here before, where the third installment of one of Pierce’s series has unfortunate implications. However, as I said before, Pierce never gets as bad as she does in Woman Who Rides Like A Man. There are plenty of things in Emperor Mage that are delightful, and I chalk that up to the difference between 1986 and 1994. The eight years between these books shows in the best possible way. Pierce balances compassion and anger in her writing, and that balance makes Emperor Mage a good read, despite its problems.
Spoilers for Emperor Mage and all previous books by Pierce. Content Warnings for slavery and racism.
Emperor Mage begins with Daine, Numair, and the Tortallan Delegation arriving in Carthak for peace talks. Daine is there to heal the Emperor’s birds, who have fallen sick. All the company are reunited with old friends and enemies. Rikash, the Stormwing, makes a reappearance in Ozorne’s court. Numair reunites with an old teacher, Lindhall Reed. Daine makes new friends, in the marmoset Zek, and the Emperor’s heir, Kaddar.
The Badger appears before she disembarks, behaves strangely, and gives Daine a strange gift. In between tours of the Hall of Bones and healing the Emperor’s birds, Daine experiments with this new power. It allows her to raise the dead. A mysterious woman keeps popping up and encouraging her in using it. Daine discovers that old woman is the Graveyard Hag, Carthak’s patron goddess.
Interspersed with these tours, divine powers, and various parties and negotiation sessions are omens. The gods destroy two statues of Ozorne, a statue of a historical emperor says that Carthak is forsaken. These warnings are intended to denounce Ozorne, but Ozorne believes the warnings were because he hasn’t killed Numair.
Ozorne kidnaps Daine, and the other delegations believe that Daine disrupted the peace talks. Daine wakes up, realizes she’s trapped, and panics. This panic allows Zek to find her and the keys to her prison. Zek frees her and bring her to Kaddar. He informs her that Ozorne caught Numair and executed him. Daine immediately plans revenge, waking the fossils in the Hall of Bones and hunting Ozorne. When she finally reaches him, Ozorne uses Rikash’s feather to shield himself. The feather turns him into a Stormwing. Kaddar becomes emperor, and the Hag takes back the magic she bestowed on Daine earlier. Numair was not killed by Ozorne, just a simulacrum, and the two are reunited.
Compassion from Others
There are three examples of compassion that don’t stem from Daine in Emperor Mage. The first is from Lindhall towards his animals. Lindhall is a natural scientist, whose work centers around animals. As such, he has a large collection of lizards and birds in his quarters at the University. When Daine and Kaddar go to visit him, his first concern is for their comfort. He rattles off a monologue of questions about if they’re happy or if they need anything. He specifically mentions that he, “[tries] to keep the environments as much like the animals’ true homes as possible … and I don’t wish to be cruel.” (p. 208). Lindhall’s affection for the animals, and their affection for him in turn, makes him all the more likable.
The second example of compassion comes, startlingly enough, from Ozorne. He introduces himself to Daine in private as a man who loves his birds. That affection is clear enough, given that the world knows that the birds are sick. His face lights up when Daine asks about the birds, and he agrees to make more concessions to the Tortallans after she heals them. Given that Ozorne lacks compassion in any other field, this is especially jarring. However, that compassion towards his birds does humanize Ozorne a little.
The final example of compassion comes from Rikash towards the end of the novel. Rikash stays behind after Ozorne flees to talk to Daine. He had sympathized with her over the death of Numair when he encountered her earlier. Now, he thanks her and tells her, “Things aren’t as bad as you think. You might look around.” (p. 338). When Daine looks around, she sees Numair alive. These moments of compassion from a Stormwing further the idea that not all Stormwings are evil from Wolf Speaker.
Daine’s Compassion towards Animals
Daine’s compassion and empathy for animals is one of the central facets of her character. That is on full display from the moment she arrives in Carthak. The delegation was traveling by barge up the river to the Palace, when Daine saw Zek fall off another boat and into the water. A group of alligators started to hunt him, and he couldn’t swim because of his heavy collar. Daine automatically jumped into the water and saved him. Even though people on the barge laughed at her afterwards, she couldn’t do anything other than save him. That’s the kind of person Daine is.
After the incident with the rats at the banquet, Kaddar and Daine go to the menagerie. The first time she had gone there, she was concerned about the type of place it would be. It gave her relief to see that the animals were treated as they might be in a large contemporary zoo, with accommodations and ample space for each animal. When she and Kaddar returned, she decided to do something more for the animals there.
“That had bothered her at first, the sadness of their days even in confinement as pleasant as this. … Now at least, she could do something for them. … she used their memories to build a waking dream. … Now, when they chose, all they had to do was shut their eyes and remember. The dream would awaken; they would be home and free.” (p. 237).
Daine uses her magic to give these captive animals an escape. While she couldn’t literally free them, she was able to give them something that came close. Her compassion leads to her exhausting herself in crafting these waking dreams for all the animals.
Daine’s Compassion towards People
One of the things that is a major source of tension through the novel is that Carthak is a slave country. The Tortallans specifically remind themselves that they cannot talk about anti-slavery motions if they want to keep things calm and come to an accord with Carthak. However, Daine has difficulty ignoring the fact that the servants are slaves and the discomfort that she associates with it.
Daine first meets the Graveyard Hag when the Hag is posing as a slave woman. Daine automatically stands up and helps her with the cleaning and dusting. The Hag drops several hints about visiting the temples and implies that the gods are angry with Carthak. Then she drags a tiger skin out, and when Daine reaches for it, the Hag’s magical gift to her brings the tiger skin to life. The Hag manipulates Daine’s compassion for other people and uses it to train Daine in how to use the gift she gave.
Daine’s compassion towards others is also apparent later in the novel. When Pierce is wrapping up the novel and Daine is recovering from channeling divine magic, Daine talks to Kaddar. Kaddar wants to reward Daine because she indirectly saved his life. Daine asks that slaves be freed, “with enough in their purses to start a new life. … The Banjiku – all of them, please, and their animals. And the emperor’s mutes.” (p. 355).
After she and Kaddar hash this out, she points out that keeping slaves is dangerous, and that Kaddar should think about freeing all of the Empire’s slaves, not just the ones she requested. Daine’s compassion is displayed when she uses the reward she was offered to better other’s lives. She also prompts her friend to think about the problems in his society.
Anger towards Ozorne
The entire plot of the novel develops from people’s anger at Ozorne. He’s the villain, so this makes sense, but two specific examples stand out. The first is the anger of Rikash. Rikash starts the novel as loyal to his king, Jokhun. Daine tells Rikash about Ozorne capturing a Stormwing Queen, Barzha. Rikash reacts viscerally to that, and later tells Daine that Barzha was the former queen of his clan. He becomes exceedingly angry at both Ozorne and Jokhun for their deception. It is from that place of anger that Rikash offers Ozorne the feather that will turn him into a Stormwing and take him off the throne.
The second moment of anger comes from Daine’s reaction to Numair’s supposed death. She freezes. Kaddar and the Banjiku who are with her when she receives the news are visibly scared of her expression in that moment. She then immediately goes to destroy Ozorne and his empire. She raises the dinosaurs in the Hall of Bones, and sets them to destroying the palace. Those dinosaurs free the animals in the menagerie, and Daine and the hyenas hunt down Ozorne. They come across several dinosaurs that Ozorne killed. “Rage and sorrow built in Daine’s heart until she thought it might burst. I want Ozorne! … I want to rip him up like he’s ripped me up!” (p. 331). Daine’s rage over the loss of Numair and her new friends fuels her need to find Ozorne.
When she arrives, she almost kills him before someone else puts up a barrier between them. Her anger is fueling her transformation, and when the cause of it disappears, she collapses. She loses control of her magic when she sees Numair alive, because that’s how much the anger and confusion have shaken her.
Anger and Compassion
The Graveyard Hag, of all people, is the person that says one of the most significant things in the novel. She and Daine are talking about what a god needs in a mortal vessel. Daine asks if a god’s vessel has to be a god’s child. The Graveyard Hag says that’s not necessary, and then delineates the actual requirements.
“No, for a vessel we need a mortal with imagination, a strong will, and determination. And anger— plenty of it.” (p. 195).
According to the Hag, one of the primary requirements is being angry. However, the novel doesn’t exactly reflect that. There are many more places where Daine feels compassion towards others than we have Daine being angry at others. When she speaks with the Hag after she finds out about Numair’s death, she says that she’s going to do things her way, not the Hag’s. This is the other significant piece of dialogue in the novel.
Through Emperor Mage, Pierce is trying to make statements about how one induces change. The two components are anger and compassion, with compassion heavily outweighing anger. Anger proves itself a necessary component, but unless tempered by compassion, it’s ineffective. As Daine says, “When the dead lie back down, the mortals will forget. A couple weeks, a month, and it’ll seem like a bad dream.” (p. 298). The Graveyard Hag wanted to raise the human dead in anger without compassion. Daine raises the animal dead, and she grieves when they die again. That blend of anger and compassion is what fuels the destruction of the palace and the hunt for Ozorne.
Thus, compassion and anger are needed in any movement for social change. Anger about how the world is and what it’s done, and compassion to see how it might be and to cherish the good in it.
Problems, Once Again
It’s a wonderful moral, and it makes sense. However, it’s a moral in a book that has two very large problems. There’s again, a problematic handling of race. In addition, there are hints of a white savior narrative.
Racism, once again.
One of the first problems is that the Empire is coded as a nation of people of color (POC). This is a problem because for the past three books it’s also been coded as the root of all evil in the series. Carthaki mages broke the barrier that let the immortals into the mortal world. Carthaki warships attacked Pirate’s Swoop in Wild Magic. Tristan, from Wolf Speaker, served Ozorne loyally.
Now, when Daine arrives in Carthak, she sees it populated by “black-, brown-, and olive-skinned southerners.” (p. 25). Kaddar winds up being the only POC in the novel who gets coded as unequivocally good, and he wants to keep the institution of slavery. The fact that Carthak is evil, populated by POC, and a slave country is reinforced when Daine sees a mosaic depicting their history.
“A soldier in the scarlet tunic … standing with one foot on the back of a fallen black man who reached vainly for a spear. To his left, a brown woman in green brocade lifter her hands, pleading; to his right, a pale woman in the tall headdress and tiered gown of Ekallatum pushed forward two naked children, a boy and a girl, in chains.” (p. 204).
On the one hand, Pierce is clearly attempting to be inclusive and progressive by including a good POC character and by advocating for freedom for the slaves. On the other hand, set against a background where the only people advocating for the freedom of slaves are white outsiders, and in a country coded as both POC and evil, it falls flat. It’s infuriating because while she tries, she fails again, and where she failed last series.
One of the most infuriating things about Emperor Mage is the attitude of the Tortallans juxtaposed to that of the Carthakis. The Tortallan view that slavery is awful is obviously correct. The Carthaki view presented is that it’s a fact of life. The only exception is Kaddar’s claims to the Graveyard Hag at the end that he, “represent[s] a secret fellowship of nobles, academics, and merchants who genuinely wish things to change here.” (p. 344). While he says this, his later comments about the difficulty of abolishing slavery make it seem that slavery isn’t one of the things they actually wish to change. His surprise that Lindhall only stayed to help run a Carthaki version of the Underground Railroad, further negates that.
In addition, there’s the question of why it’s Daine that the Graveyard Hag chooses to work through. The Graveyard Hag selects Daine partly because of convenience for Pierce. Daine is our protagonist, of course she will be central in this. But given the fact that the Graveyard Hag literally asks Daine about whether or not the gods should destroy Carthak, the goddess choosing an outsider becomes a problem.
The fact that this problem would be so easy to fix compounds the issue. Have Daine work with a group of native Carthaki who were already devoted to abolishing slavery. Make it more apparent that Ozorne’s opinion is not Carthak’s as a whole. Give Kaddar more of a role, give the Banjiku more of a role in the conclusion. Daine wouldn’t be as central to the plot, but given that Carthak is a completely foreign country, it would be justifiable. Have the Graveyard Hag simply accept Kaddar’s request for salvation instead of turning to Daine. It would be that easy to fix.
Overall, Emperor Mage is an entertaining novel. It poignantly makes a statement about what social change requires. Daine grows as a character, and it sets the pieces in place for the final novel in this quartet.
It also has some spectacular stumbles, thought it’s an improvement on what has come before. Every time Pierce addresses these difficult issues, her understanding of them improves. Emperor Mage is an improvement on Woman Who Rides Like A Man in that it has that moral, and it doesn’t sideline the main character’s growth. It still has far to go, but it’s progress.
Anger and compassion, anger at how the novel fails, and compassion for where it improves on previous work.