The Grobal Race rules the eight cavern cities of Varin, but its strict rules for membership are based on blood and birth, creating nobles who have become increasingly inbred. This genetic bottleneck has left them more susceptible than the other castes of Varin to an illness called Kinders fever. An outbreak would devastate their diminished population. So when the Speaker suddenly falls ill at the annual Announcement proclaiming the state of the Grobal Race’s health, the nobles in attendance panic, fleeing from the grand ballroom before a performance of the controversial new symphony The Catacomb can begin. But seventeen-year-old Tagaret of the First Family is determined to hear the symphony, even if it means muckwalking among the Lowers to watch a later performance. Despite his discomfort in associating with other castes, Tagaret enjoys the concert and falls in love with a fellow Grobal in attendance, Della of the Sixth Family.
With rigid rules governing what kind of interaction is appropriate between genders, there are political consequences for Tagaret’s chance meeting with Della. Tagaret soon discovers just how dire those consequences are when a high-ranking Grobal dies from Kinders fever, setting into motion the competition for Heir to the Throne. Selected to represent the First Family, Tagaret is ensnared in the complex political web of Grobal society. While Tagaret is an unwilling participant, his megalomaniacal brother Nekantor is obsessed with the First Family’s prestige and schemes to gain more power.
The return of their mother Lady Tamelera from being stationed at another cavern city further complicates matters. Reunited with her abusive husband Garr, Tamelera finds herself stripped of her last symbol of safety when Garr forces her to end her relationship with Eyli, her Imbati bodyguard and servant. Against Tamelera’s wishes, Aloran, a recent graduate of the Imbati Service Academy, is assigned as her new servant. Although he is unsure how to navigate their tense relationship, Aloran still does his best to honor his duty to Tamelera, all while grappling with his own role in the city of Pelismara.
With a huge cast of characters, Juliette Wade’s debut novel Mazes of Power (The Broken Trust #1) promises rich political intrigue in a secondary world entirely divorced from our own. Wade is also the host of Dive Into Worldbuilding, a YouTube conversation series on worldbuilding as a craft, and describes worldbuilding as “any time you are creating a sense of place while storytelling.” Indeed, the opening line of Mazes of Power immediately establishes the alienness of the world of Varin: “Tagaret believed in music the same way he believed in the sky.” Wade doesn’t hesitate to layer on more details about the fantastic cavern cities and Varin society, where a person is born into one of seven occupation-based castes, each with its own norms and expectations. Aside from the Grobal Race, there are also Arissen, the officers; Imbati, the servants; Kartunnen, the artisans; Venorai, the laborers; Melumalai, the merchants; and Akrabitti, the Undercaste, who perform undesirable labor like trash collecting and taking care of dead bodies. The caste system also has an element of class to it: although money is virtually meaningless to the wealthy nobility, it is a major decision-making factor for all other castes. Aside from caste-based divisions, Grobal society is also very structured when it comes to interactions between genders and between the twelve noble Families. Grobal society is so strict about gender roles that the ascension of the first-ever lady cabinet member is a major political scandal.
Unfortunately, much of the worldbuilding advertised in Mazes of Power doesn’t make it to the actual page. In Mazes of Power, Wade uses an extremely high-context style that leaves much of Varin unexplained. Readers are immersed in Pelismaran society and expected to piece together the clues for a bigger picture of the world, which itself is high context: much of the story is spent on characters reading between the lines of what’s said to them to decipher their next political moves. For better or worse, the reader must figure out the significance of social cues and transgressions.
On the positive side, Wade keeps the high context consistent and does an excellent job of filtering details. Only things that would stand out to someone living within the world are highlighted, not for the reader’s benefit, but as part of the characters’ perceptions of the world. However, the detail that is provided ends up being murky and raising more questions than it answers. Even after I finished reading the book, I had a hard time imagining what the cavern cities actually looked like, aside from the image of a few towering elevator shafts and the contrast of a harsh sun on the surface. I picked up that there was flora throughout, but I was distracted by questions of how plants grew without sunlight—and if they did survive on other nutrients, how that would affect the way they looked, and what the city of Pelismara was made out of. If there wasn’t sunlight, or there was only limited sunlight, then what did the cities use as lighting? A few words suggest that the city runs on electricity—but how is it generated? The mention of a hair dryer also suggests technological comforts of our time, but the history of their invention is a complete mystery.
All these details affect the images and atmospheres I visualize as I go through a new world. Much of the excitement of a secondary world is, after all, the way it differs from our own. Even with a high-context approach, other recent work has quickly established setting in more effective ways. Military science fiction is a subgenre already laden with jargon, but Joel Dane adds a further layer of speculative future technology and culture on top in Cry Pilot:
The connection crashes. It doesn’t matter, though: the appointment information is already on my cuff. They expect me in thirty-five minutes. That’s the first test. If you’re not willing to drop everything, the corporate military doesn’t want you.
As I slip toward the exit, my pulse thumps along with the music. A low note creeps up my spine, and then I’m in the bustling, bright corridor. Boutiques and cafés march toward the atrium with elevators servicing the highest floors of the tower. Chattering families browse the shops and rowdy kids play wall-hockey.
Late afternoon in a Freehold tower.
I grab redbean rolls at a warung and eat in the elevator. A projection on the wall shows the streets outside the tower: maintenance bots spark, adboards flicker, and mobile homes cling to the undersides of a tangle of highways. A crowd of kids chases a sweets caravan along a curving track, and a flock of new-generation sparrows dives through freight cables.
That’s all behind me now. (ebook)
In just under 170 words, Dane establishes a powerful sense of both the time and place of the setting while dropping hints about social expectations, kinship structures, cuisine, economy, and transportation. I kept wishing for dense paragraphs of details like this through Mazes of Power, but only descriptions of the elevators and sun toward the end of the book left me with a strong impression. There’s also very little sensory detail, leaving me with only a psychological understanding of the narrative.
Mazes of Power brands itself as sociological science fiction. Wade defines sociological science fiction as “science fiction that sets its major focus on society and its impact rather than on other elements like gadgets, technologies, or frontiers.” Examples include The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin and the Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie. Varin society is indeed the highlight of Mazes of Power. There are fascinating hints of different communication systems and cultural norms, even within the same city. Servants, for example, communicate using their eyes through “gaze gestures” that nobles are oblivious to. But even with a focus on characters’ roles and decision-making processes, I found the large cast of Mazes of Power difficult to keep track of. I prefer my characters distinct enough that I don’t feel compelled to check the list of characters every chapter or so, but that was what I was doing while reading Mazes of Power. Tagaret, Nekantor, and Aloran, the viewpoint characters, did have their own motivations and voices, but the secondary cast features several characters who seem to play no part other than to support the viewpoint characters’ storylines. For example, Benél, a distant cousin of Nekantor and also his lover, is little more than a comfort object for Nekantor. Lady Selemei, despite her notoriety as the first lady cabinet member, doesn’t do much beyond slipping information to Tagaret. Every non-Grobal character felt like an NPC in a video game with scripted dialogue and interactions. Although I was intrigued by details like gaze gestures, I ultimately wanted to see more details, like interactions beyond nobles, if only to highlight how different the nobles are. I caught glimpses of the bright cultures and vocations of artisans, officers, and even trash collectors. Why not include those parts of Varin society, too, for a broader sociological picture?
Beyond questions of craft, what disappointed me the most about Mazes of Power was the way it doesn’t consider the fact that it is sociological science fiction, and is therefore rooted in sociological understandings of our own world. The epigraph sets up expectations that, although Varin society is very different from our own, it reflects it: “Varin is a place where humans have always lived on an alien world. It is also your home.” But, while I got the impression that Wade wants the reader to understand those parallels in terms of individual power, I experienced a narrative that was ignorant at best of the institutional power imbalances that it replicates. Despite their premise, secondary worlds can never be truly divorced from our own world. Readers, whose lenses have been shaped by our existing systems of power, complete the work of storytelling by bringing their own expectations and understandings to the table when they read a work. More than anything, I wish Mazes of Power examined itself more as a narrative that I ultimately found to be racist, sexist, biphobic, ableist, and apologetic of slavery and abuse. I do not have the background to speak to whether Mazes of Power renders a culturally sensitive caste system compared to modern ones, though, so caste will remain a gap in my comments.
Any piece of sociological science fiction must first immediately be aware of the loaded implications of the term “race,” even if the secondary world has no history of racial violence, but especially if the piece is intended for audiences where racial violence is real history. I cringed when I saw the noble caste described as “the Grobal Race.” I didn’t find Wade’s justification for the term “race” to be particularly compelling, either: “[The Grobal] are the only Varin group that uses the term ‘race’ in any way. It fits them because, genetically speaking, they are the only group that is fully cut off from every other group.” If you believe that race is a marker settled simply by blood quantum, then yes, “race” is a fitting term here. But that’s quite an essentialist take on race for a sociological work. As the recent popularity of genetic tests like 23andMe has shown, genotype and race often do not correlate, or may differ in surprising ways. Socially speaking, race is a category based on social status and perceptions rather than blood.
Equating race and blood quantum in the narrative also has the side effect of creating a creeping atmosphere of White supremacy that I couldn’t ignore, even if it was unintentional. As a person of color in the United States’ current political climate, it’s hard for me to read about a select group of people in power concerned with the preservation of their race through blood purity and eugenics and not be reminded of White supremacy. I was particularly disturbed by the following exchange that occurs after Tagaret attempts to discredit Nekantor (emphasis mine):
“You can’t expect to be treated like a child anymore, Tagaret. Our duties to the Grobal Trust, and to the continuity of the Race, have nothing to do with our personal desires. I learned this, and so will you. These are the responsibilities of our exalted station.”
“Young Nekantor,” [Erex] said. “Didn’t you hear about Sangar of the Eighth Family? One might wonder whether you truly care for the future of the Grobal Race. Be careful.”
I can’t help but recall the “14 words” of White supremacy:
We must secure the existence of our people and a future for [W]hite children.
It may very well be the case that Wade has intentionally created this parallel and plans to undermine the Grobal caste in the next book. Tagaret having a major turning point toward the end of the book that makes him more open-minded certainly suggests the possibility. But I can’t judge a book by my hopeful speculations of what will happen next—I can only judge what’s on the page. Although Varin society doesn’t use skin color to distinguish race, there is still a very strong correlation between skin color and caste. A search of the book reveals the following references to skin color. I have put the names of Grobal characters in bold:
- [Herin’s] skin had a deep golden tone; his hair was two shades darker, and he wore it curled tightly against his head.
- [Keir had] been the youngest of Mother’s gaming friends, maybe twenty-five, with golden skin, dark eyebrows and black hair in a tower atop her head.
- Menni’s mother had deep brown hair, while the Cabinet Secretary himself was golden-skinned and bald as a marble.
- She was obviously a surface worker, for her skin was a striking sunmarked brown.
- “Imbati, sir,” said the brown-skinned [Venorai] man. “Pardon us, but there are dangers above.”
- The woman’s skin was a dark shade of brown, the color of surface work.
- Fragments of broken grass clung to the sweat on [the laborers’] sun-baked skin—skin in strange colors like deep brown, or splotchy, or red sprinkled with pepper.
- [Reyn had] always been fair, but now his skin looked pale as steam.
- [Grobal Garr’s] disarranged clothes showed glimpses of his pasty skin[.]
- Behind [Aloran’s] closed eyes flashed a vision of bandaging [Tamelera]: handling smooth pale skin marred with bruises.
- “[Arissen Karyas] was strong, like always. Perfect orange uniform, ambitious brown skin, hungry eyes.”
There is no exception to the distribution of skin colors: Grobal skin is only pale or “golden,” while other castes have browner skin, and surface workers are particularly disdained for their dark skin.
I am Chinese American. Terms used to describe my skin range from “yellow” to “golden.” Although East Asians can be dark-skinned, I rarely see people describe our skin as “brown,” which is usually reserved for other people of color. From this pattern, I get the implication that, if we were to speak in terms from our world, only a White or East Asian person can be Grobal. I am once again reminded of a notable trait of modern White supremacists: their paradoxical fetish for East Asians and acceptance of East Asians as model minorities.
I really don’t want to be writing these sentences and invoking words of White supremacy. I would really like to read this novel any other way. But the parallels saturate the story so thoroughly that to ignore them would feel like willful denial. The last few lines of the book don’t leave me with the impression that the undertones of the caste dynamics will be addressed in the next book, either. In the epilogue, Tamelera unexpectedly delivers a healthy child despite the death of her husband Garr. Chapter 35 implies that Aloran is the father: “Let the time be wrong—even let Grobal Garr have been right that she was no longer able to bear children… In giving the last of his [contraceptive] medication to her son, [Aloran had] left [Tamelera] unprotected.” Despite the scandal that would break out if the child’s true parentage were revealed, and despite his concerns for his own position, Aloran must remain calm and collected in public, as is expected of Imbati. With that context, this is how the novel ends:
“Remarkable. Just remarkable.”
Tagaret stopped walking. “Doctor—what’s remarkable?”
The doctor chewed his painted lip. “Not to trouble you, sir …”
“I’ve never seen a Grobal baby receive a perfect health score.”
The baby had dark hair—but looked like Mother.
“Oh, gods be thanked!” [Tagaret] exclaimed. “Della, look.”
“Master, if I may,” said Kuarmei, “the Heir sent me a message to deliver, should all go well.”
“Yes, thank you, Kuarmei.”
Kuarmei took reciting stance. “Dear Mother: I give you honor for your endurance, and congratulate you on the birth of your child. It is a great day, indeed, when we may give thanks for Grobal Garr’s last gift to the Race. With love, Nekantor.”
Tagaret glanced at Della; she had bitten her lip. No one spoke for nearly a minute.
“Well,” Mother said at last. “That was very kind of him.”
If I’m generous, I would say that this ending is a setup for a complete dismantling of Mazes of Power in the sequel where the entire caste system and fallacy of genetic purity collapses. But I have to go off of what’s actually on the page. In Varin, you are born into your caste, and if you want to have a relationship with someone from another caste, you must Fall to the lower caste. Yet with Tamelera remaining in power and Aloran, who is still her servant, sworn to secrecy, the ending implies that Tamelera escapes Falling. The baby’s parentage becomes an open secret in her family. Furthermore, judging by Tagaret’s reaction, the baby’s apparent ability to pass for Grobal is a positive. Essentially, the book ends with the most powerful figure of Pelismara society delivering a secretly mixed-race baby out of wedlock, and this ending is framed as humorous. I don’t find it appropriate to use the birth of a mixed-race child as the punchline to a disturbingly White supremacist narrative, especially when mixed-race people commonly experience fetishization related to birth and infancy, and anti-miscegenation laws are still in the United States’ living memory.
Unfortunately, race is only the first of the issues I had with Mazes of Power. Despite the promise that women’s issues are important to the book, the women characters are woefully rendered, and sex work is incredibly stigmatized, with terms like “whore” thrown around freely. But my one immovable stance when it comes to gender issues in fiction is that rape should never be used as a plot device without serious consideration of its psychological aftereffects on all characters involved. I could see an argument that Tamelera’s repeated marital rapes are presented with their consequences, as Tamelera does have PTSD around sex, and the narrative cares about that repercussion (emphasis in original): “That retreat, that fear—that, for her, was the experience of sex!” “Garr had done this to her. […] For eighteen years, he’d used sex as punishment for his own satisfaction—Mai the Right and Father Varin between them should tear his soul from his body!” Still, I was left increasingly dissatisfied at the decision to use rape as shorthand for Garr’s monstrosity. Yes, when I arrived at the point in the story where I got the sinking feeling that rape would happen, I did feel real horror. But the horror came only from the act of using rape in that way, not from the narrative significance of the event or from skillful craft in rendering the heightened, terrifying emotions surrounding such an experience.
What was most inexcusable for me, though, was the way rape featured in Della’s storyline. Once Nekantor becomes the First Family’s candidate in the competition for Heir to the Throne, Tagaret is left with no way to marry Della, who is then put into an arranged marriage with Innis of the Fifth Family. But Della surprises Tagaret with a plan: she will arrange for him to take her virginity so that Innis will no longer want to marry her, as she would then be “used.” Despite Della keeping her virginity after plans go awry, the news that “Innis’ betrothed has been despoiled” (emphasis in original) spreads: “Her house was broken into and her bodyguard ambushed… you can guess the rest.” The arranged marriage is broken off: “[Innis] blames Lady Della, and deservedly so. She’s proven herself a harlot.” Nekantor then goes to Degalin of the Sixth Family to negotiate for Della to marry Tagaret; Degalin is shocked that Tagaret would be willing to have her “in any condition.” Foreshadowing the ending, when asked whether Tagaret would accept Della even if she were pregnant with another man’s child, Nekantor smirks and says, “Partner them fast enough, and perhaps he won’t notice the difference. The Race will prosper either way.”
I am very willing to take this as an example of how Grobal society is extremely patriarchal and sexist. What I’m less willing to accept is that Della has little voice and agency in handling the repercussions of such a life-changing event. Ultimately, the narrative frames the false rape as an acceptable, politically positive tool with little consequence. I could imagine a narrative where a politically charged false rape accusation is presented sensitively in a way that engages critically with how false rape accusations are handled in our own world. But this was not it.
Despite my complete rejection of the narrative’s use of rape as a plot device, that wasn’t the most difficult part of reading Mazes of Power. The most painful disappointments came from the novel’s representations of bisexual and mentally ill characters. As I immersed myself in the opening pages of Mazes of Power, I thought that I would be going into a story with many bisexual men, which made me happy—I rarely see stories about them. I was hopeful that the novel would treat bisexuality as something that was normal in Varin society, and I got that impression at first between both Tagaret and Reyn, and Nekantor and Benél, all of whom are men.
But the twists at the end of the novel were like gut punch after gut punch. Every same-gender partnership was invalidated. Reyn is cast out like an inconvenient prop when Tagaret commits to Della. When he believes that Reyn is about to die from Kinders fever, Tagaret even has the gall to begin his last letter to his best friend with the words, “Do you remember the first day we kissed? Then I imagine you must also remember copper and emeralds—I think you always knew she was never far outside my thoughts when we were together.” The line cements Reyn’s place as nothing more than training wheels for his relationship with Della, underscored by Tagaret’s closing words as he reflects on his impending marriage to Della: “I guess becoming a man happened faster than I was ready for.”
One relationship between two men ends in a scandal that forces a Grobal to Fall. Nekantor’s affections for Benél become a weapon used to discredit Nekantor: “But still, what he says concerns me. That you would turn down an offer of partnership, preferring the company of a male cousin. Overnight, no less. It’s behavior unbecoming an Heir to the legacy of Grobal Fyn.” Only relationships between men and women are narratively validated. But the most shocking moment was between Tagaret and Della, two virgins attempting to have sex for the first time:
“What is it?” he asked. “You’re not feeling—bad, are you?”
“You’ve done this before.”
Oh, no. “Y—no,” he stammered. “Not this.”
“Not this? Have you been with a boy?”
“You have, haven’t you.”
Tagaret rubbed his face with both hands. Would she hate him now?
“Tagaret,” she said sternly. “You must tell me the truth. If I can’t trust you, then why shouldn’t I take Innis in partnership? He would be the same.”
It wasn’t fair. Innis couldn't be the same—Innis would be like Father, and he could never be like Father, never, never!
As a bisexual person myself, it’s incredibly upsetting to see bisexuality treated as despicable, and, even worse, to have a man equated with an abuser simply on the grounds that he’s bisexual. Della only calms herself down by imagining a future on the surface, away from Pelismara, where she “could want [him]”—implying that Tagaret, socially, is similarly undesirable as Della. Perhaps the intent of these passages is to illustrate social dynamics in all their messy hurtfulness, but, ultimately, the failure for me stems from how misleading the narrative felt. Same-gender relationships were not given ample setup as a stigmatized form of socializing, leading to my shocked reaction and subsequent sense of betrayal when the seemingly accepting society proved to be a paragon of heteropatriarchy.
The powerful streak of eugenics and ableism that goes unquestioned through Mazes of Power also disturbed me. I accepted the obsession with the health of the population at first, as it seemed to be a fair consequence of having a genetic bottleneck that makes the Grobal Race more susceptible to disease, especially considering that they are inoculated at lower rates due to the commonness of allergic reactions to vaccines. I was hoping for medical worldbuilding that would at least touch on current anti-vaccine discourse and its consequences for herd immunity. I was even excited that Nekantor was a viewpoint character, as I quickly picked up on his obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and was intrigued by how his voice reflected his need for ritual and his fixations on power and status. But all that fell apart as the narrative equated disability with defect over and over again.
Nekantor’s success through the heir competition hinges on the fact that his OCD is an invisible illness and is undetectable in cursory health exams. Terrified of a ruthless future that might come to pass if Nekantor becomes the most powerful figure in Pelismara, Tagaret desperately tries to discredit Nekantor through political back channels with exchanges like the following that show Grobal society’s abhorrence for disability (emphasis in original):
“If Nekantor wins, it will be worse. Selemei, he’s defective.”
From the look on her face, he might as well have slapped her.
“Compulsive obsessions,” he explained quickly, so she couldn’t doubt his seriousness. “Paranoia. And he’s completely merciless.”
Lady Selemei rose to her feet incredulously. “You never heard him say that,” she cried. “Oaths!”
“I’m going to assume you’re wrong, Tagaret. Don’t you see what that would mean? […] What happened to Erex [who Fell] would happen to your family! […] Your mother’s reputation would be ruined, and you would be removed from your home in the Residence.” She turned back with a fierce look on her face. “Not only that—everyone thinks I’ve been supporting Nekantor! I would lose my cabinet seat. Everything I’ve achieved in the last five years would be erased!”
But the climax of the book happens when Garr dies an untimely death and his servant Sorn doesn’t show up to deliver his vote for Nekantor. Nekantor has a public meltdown before every important figure in Grobal society. Tagaret hopes the meltdown and the revelation of his “defect” will completely discredit Nekantor as a candidate, ending his political career: “That should have been it. That should have been it!” Although I don’t have OCD, the public meltdowns I’ve had because of my mental illnesses rank among the top most terrifying and humiliating experiences of my life. With Nekantor painted throughout the novel as a villain, I feel the pressure from the narrative to sympathize with Tagaret and cheer as Nekantor melts down. But I only feel horrified by Tagaret’s callousness and complete disregard for his brother.
Mental illness isn’t the only realm where I found the narrative callous even as it expects me to be sympathetic. The final point I want to touch on is how Mazes of Power treats abuse and service. Even on the back cover copy, Tamelera is framed as an abuse victim: “To win [the competition for Heir to the throne] would give [Tagaret] the power to rescue his mother from his abusive father[.]” I do not dispute that Tamelera is a victim, and I have previously outlined how I found the abuse against her to be horrific. But the narrative completely ignores the ways in which Tamelera herself abuses Aloran.
I was unimpressed with Wade’s justification for writing a narrative about servants:
The Western literary canon is full of stories about kings, princes, and nobles. These stories train us to feel comfortable with the idea of contests for power, and often, we’re asked to empathize with a noble perspective, while less exalted groups to fade into the background. However, some stories change this pattern. I remember, as a child, feeling inspired by a story called “The Water of Life,” part of a fairy tale collection by Howard Pyle. In this story, the father of a princess asks suitors to complete three impossible tasks in order to win her hand, and the nobleman who admires her asks his faithful servant to complete the tasks… and in the end, the faithful servant is the one who wins the love of the princess. I also love movies, like Gosford Park and The Remains of the Day, that look at the secret lives of servants.
The secret lives of servants is a compelling narrative perspective, particularly when paired with a setup where only servants have access to “the Maze,” which provides shortcuts and efficient pathways between important points within Pelismara. But it is a whitewashing of both history and contemporary systems of power to paint the “secret lives of servants” as nothing more than quaint story fodder, instead of acknowledging reality: the secret lives of servants involves extensive unseen work and sacrifice to keep their masters’ lives pleasant. The narrative does show the thorough training Imbati receive and much of the hidden work around decision-making and providing support for the people they serve. Imbati are indoctrinated to accept their position. “Imbati, love where you serve” is their core principle. Their service even subsumes their individuality, as represented by how working Imbati are referred to: “Garr’s Sorn,” “Della’s Yoral,” “Selemei’s Ustin.” Imbati are possessions, not discrete individuals with their own agency.
Within the context of the secondary world, such servitude is seen as an honor, and the Imbati caste ranks highly, close to the Grobal Race. But with the novel’s undertone of White supremacy, I can only see this representation of servitude as slavery apologism. Although Imbati service comes with a contract and payment, indentured servitude isn’t much different from slavery. Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed is a recent narrative that heavily engages with the consequences and legacy of slavery from a marginalized point of view. In around 150 words, Mohamed delivers one of the most concise, yet devastating, critiques of colonialism’s impact that I’ve read (emphasis in original):
“Sure,” I said. “Don’t you remember what my family came from? That we were slaves, born of slaves, shipped over from another country filled with slaves? The British gussied it up, changed the name, made us ‘colonials,’ part of their empire. Said we were part of a great undertaking: that we would change the world. Just like you. But there was no way home. Not then.”
What would my life have looked like if it had truly belonged to me? I could have had friends, even girlfriends… I could have made my own decisions, gone my own way. […] Who could I have been if I hadn’t simply been a mute, shapeless stone to sharpen the blade of her mind against, wearing away under the harder material of her genius? What could the world have been? I would never know, no one would ever know. (pp. 341–344)
I wanted Mazes of Power to interrogate the power difference between servants and their masters with similar sharpness. But instead, Aloran mentally wills himself into servitude, and a relationship structure outside the utter codependency between a Grobal and their Imbati doesn’t even enter the narrative as an option. Aloran does nothing but weather Tamelera’s treatment of him. Their very first meeting opens with an attack:
“So, darling, do you want me to ask [Aloran] questions?”
“As many as you want,” Grobal Garr replied.
The Lady whirled and flung the rabbit.
Aloran flinched. The rabbit came so close to his head that it flashed white in the corner of his eye. It smashed on stone behind him.
The reality of Lady Tamelera was shattering. The violence of her eyes—it was as if they’d burned holes right through him. Imagine what it would have been like, after a month: with so many holes, there would have been nothing left of him at all.
Despite the scene being told from Aloran’s point of view, every character, including Aloran himself, sympathizes with Lady Tamelera, who has just had her last servant taken away to be replaced against her wishes with Aloran. Much later on in the novel, when Tamelera has a moment of clarity about the inappropriateness of her actions, Aloran nonetheless steers her away from painting herself as an aggressor (emphasis in original):
“Gnash you, Aloran! Where in Varin’s name have you been?”
He turned around.
Tamelera seized the ceramic rabbit from the windowsill and hurled it at his head.
Aloran flung up his hands as the rabbit hit. Hands stinging, he set it gently on the writing table. Then he fell to his knees and lowered his head to the floor.
“Lady, please forgive me.”
“I called you.” She breathed hard, half-sobbing. “I called you, and you weren’t there …”
“I’m cruel—as cruel as Plis the Warrior.”
“Lady.” He spoke toward the carpet. “When we saw the Master tonight, he was at your mercy, yet you took no inhuman action against him.”
“You are at my service, and I tried to hit you with a rabbit.”
“You would have done the same had I been the Master himself.”
Aloran goes so far as to even forgive Tamelera by equating her outburst with what she would do as self-defense against her husband. I’ll make my position explicit: even if Tamelera is herself abused, she still has the power to choose whether she in turn inflicts abuse on Aloran. The narrative establishes that Aloran was previously terrified by Tamelera throwing things at him, yet now we’re expected to accept the abuse as a logical consequence of her situation. In fact, the narrative romanticizes their relationship.
“It never felt with you like it did with Eyli,” Tamelera confessed. “I’ve realized now, I’m going to love you whether or not you let me. If the love you say you hold for me is not like mine, then tell me now, and I’ll let you go. Gods—” She glanced down. “Maybe I should let you go anyway.”
“It’s just that—I don’t want to command you, Aloran. Not in this. I’ll kill myself before I force you to act love falsely.”
“You’re not like [Garr],” Aloran said. “You could never be like him. And I could never be false, not to you.”
When criticizing Tamelera and Aloran’s relationship, I cannot ignore the fact that there is a massive power difference between them. Aloran’s entire livelihood and identity belong to Tamelera. The denial of consent in the phrasing “whether or not you let me” already sets a chilling tone. Tamelera doesn’t even consider that Imbati are specifically trained to “act love falsely” with their very motto, “Imbati, love where you serve.” The narrative is then quick to reassure the reader that Tamelera couldn’t possibly be abusive, because she’s not like her husband, who hits and rapes her.
But abuse isn’t only physical. Tamelera’s outbursts, paired with Aloran’s compromised ability to consent and their extreme power difference, make the glorification of Tamelera and Aloran’s relationship unsettling to me. I am reminded of the relationships White women slave owners had with the people they enslaved. This particular passage from Soraya Nadia McDonald’s interview with Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers resonates with my reading of Mazes of Power:
This is a very ugly feminist history. This is a story about a certain group of women finding their freedom, finding their liberty, finding their agency and their autonomy in the bondage, the oppression, the subjugation of another group of individuals. That’s not a pretty feminist story. That is not the kind of feminism that makes women’s history and feminism morally comfortable.
What happens when we realize and reckon with the fact that these individuals who we want to believe are maternal, we want to believe are more caring, are more nurturing, are in fact destroying families, severing connections between mothers and children, are selling human beings away from everything they know and love for the rest of their lives? What do we do when we realize that those individuals who we had hoped upon hope are our better angels are not our better angels? That they’re equally as dark, equally as vicious and brutal and calculating, you know? The jig would be up.
Ultimately, I find it very difficult to accept Tamelera and Aloran’s relationship in light of the power differences involved, and I find the ending of the book to be even more disconcerting in light of their compromised relationship.
Mazes of Power does indeed set up a complex society full of power, prejudice, and difference, and there is ample opportunity to subvert everything I’ve discussed in this review in the scheduled sequel. On its own, though, there isn’t enough context to discern the broader narrative intent. In the end, authorial intent can only go so far.
I went into Mazes of Power expecting a thoughtfully rendered society that is conscious and critical of our contemporary networks of power, and I hoped for the linguistic detail that I saw on Wade’s website. What I got out of Mazes of Power, though, was a world that is ignorant at best of how it replicates real-world oppression. If you’re interested in a cast of characters that is ruthless in pursuing their self-interests and preserving the status quo, then Mazes of Power may be the right book for you. But in my least generous reading, Varin is a sinister dystopia that would completely eradicate a person like me: a bisexual, mentally ill survivor of color. In fact, the epigraph predicted my reading experience—Varin is my home. I already live within these power structures. But I am no longer interested in fiction that uncritically replicates them.
 I use the terms “high-context” and “low-context” here as linguistic extrapolations of Edward Hall’s framework for understanding cultural differences.[return]
 I capitalize the term “White” to highlight that it is not a default state, but a social construct like the racial terms “Asian,” “Latinx,” and “Black.”[return]
 All quotations taken from ebook edition.[return]