December 17, 2017

Review of “The Weeping Empress”

A fantasy epic set in an alternative universe alongside (or crooked) to ours, Sadie Forsythe illustrates the journey of a young woman called Chiyo and her relationship with violence and destiny. Chiyo is from our world, we assume, had a normal life with a husband and young child but is forced to survive in a ruthless world where fate has dealt her a bad hand. She finds herself among a group of outlaws, running from a tyrannical government where she slowly discovers that her transportation to the strange universe was not a mistake.

The fantasy genre is a favourite of mine, because its aim is escapism. Reality is too familiar a setting for those who want to experience surreality, myth, romance or violence. It opens the doors to imagination – always a good thing.

So does “The Weeping Empress” succeed among its epic brotherhood? Partially, yes, though there is something amiss. The Fantasy genre escapes from reality but not realism. Realism is a classic part of the novel – without it we cannot forget that it is fiction.

The first mistake was to link it to our world. We want to escape our world, not watch someone else escape theirs. Though this narrative device in itself is not problematic – after all C.S. Lewis does it in the Narnia chronicles but to say that someone just woke up in another reality is a little lazy. No thought given to how that might have happened, no consideration as to where that barrier is or whether the person sleeping next to her in bed would have noticed that his wife faded from the universe. It’s just an example of deus ex machina in its full glory. How did this happen? Where is the barrier? Why is the barrier there? These are all questions I want answered.

But if one accepts that plot device and moves on there are so many narrative tools completely ignored that can link the two worlds together. If a character moves from one life to another, the second life often has aspects that reflect the first. Characters carry aspects of themselves through into the future, you cannot just change immediately. So Chiyo is a mother, and has a husband – why on earth does the author not use this? Why does she not fill that motherly need with a young character that she mothers herself? Look at “The Hunger Games” – just as a genre similar to this – Katniss befriends a small girl called Rue – why? Because her character is that of an older sister, there has to be linearity to her character, it stands to reason she would continue on to become an older sister later in the story. Chiyo is a mother and wife in her old life and a killer in her next – no linearity there, they are just two different people with nothing in common.

The fact that she is married kills the possibility of a love interest, she is supposed to love the man she leaves behind even though no reason is given why – we don’t see their relationship, it is merely stated as fact. Her old life was perfect, this one isn’t. We like love interests in narrative, you can make them unconventional or they don’t work out in the end but the fantasy epic will always be rife with romance, Chiyo just becomes a lonesome character that no one wants to be.

Forsythe partially explains the weaponry Chiyo exhibits with the use of parenthesis – a tool entirely unneeded. You don’t need to explain the basics of sword art to prove to your reader you have researched what the parts of a sword are, this is a fantasy epic so you don’t explain anything, you mention these things in passing expecting the reader to pick up on it. An author’s job is not to explain point blank what you have learned in your personal research – you put only what serves the story. Otherwise you risk ruining the illusion. The reader can make an educated guess as to what you’re talking about and congratulate himself for his understanding.

Her relationship with violence is the most interesting yet most neglected theme of the story. First of all, she survives by cutting her way through people the moment she arrives in the alternative universe, no thought given to how hard it is to actually kill someone with a sword, or how hard it is to handle a sword, or how the people die. She just cuts blindly and somehow survives – why? Oh, because she’s the chosen one, didn’t I tell you? Right, well, okay.

Apart from anything, a middle aged mother learns to be a sword master in two years? Really? Perhaps it’s possible but there is a reason why in most fantasy epics the main character is often young. Fantasy series are generally Bildungsroman, we follow their story from a young age and how they learn, no fantasy story throws a middle aged woman into the middle of a violent reality unlike her own who then learns how to be the best of the best. Why? Because it just not likely enough to work. Fantasy is a genre on the knife edge, we escape from reality but not realism.

But Forsythe opens a really interesting perspective of violence – its sexual side. Chiyo has a sexual relationship with violence where she dreams of killing mixed up with arousal. Forsythe has struck gold. We all love reading into the psychology of people, and this messed up, weird relationship is the most believable, original part of the story. I want more. But where is it? It’s mentioned in passing and hardly really explained at all. What if she actually enjoys the torture? Who is the torturer? What kind of man is a torturer? What if she takes some twisted pleasure from it and this realisation scares her? Why not parallel the power relationships in sex with the power relationships in torture?

By the end we understand Chiyo went back in time, a nice twist, though problematic. Was there actually a goddess that still exists? Does magic exist if she was magicked back in time? Surely if the goddess Kali exists as a divine power to magic a woman back in time – why is it a defunct religion? Or is this a small part of Japan? What about the dialogue? If it is historical rather than fantasy the dialogue is far from authentic. The whole genre is turned on its head and in order for that to work, the novel itself need to suggest both genres. It becomes historical magic realism, which has its own needs as a genre which are completely ignored. You can’t just go through the entire novel saying it’s a fantasy novel, using fantasy tools and then label it as historical realism. No one will believe you.

I should be clear though, I have spent the last 1000 words criticising the book, but I have plenty of praise too. The book progresses and overall the concept of the book is a strong one. I enjoyed the mystery and mythology it assumed, I just wanted more of it. Forsythe has a lot of potential to improve the narrative because her writing is clear and she obviously has the tenacity to undergo a redraft because she wrote it in the first place – and it needs one. It needs to be edited and it needs a rewrite. The main characters need to change, the religion needs to be explored, the setting needs to be described, the themes need to be clearer, the dialogue needs to more authentic – and these are just general points.

I have hopes that this novel will be published in a second edition in the future. If it is then I look forward to reading it with a fresh perspective.

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