Book Review: First Empress of Mortar
Fantasy novels take us to different worlds, show us extraordinary things, and in some way teach us not only about ourselves, but also the world around us. Typically the story unfolds around a young male protagonist, often the ‘everyman’ of peasant stock, or occasionally a member of the nobility if not royalty. In A.J. Jaafari’s first book, ‘First Empress of Mortar’, readers see an ongoing series of extraordinary events swirl around a rather ordinary young woman. Rather than sweeping his readers on an epic cross-country quest, so typical of fantasy, Jaafari maintains the village of Mortar as a focal point. Much like in our regular lives, events unfold at home. One after another, like the rise and fall of a roller coaster, challenges, puzzles, and dangers come and go. Jerya, born to a simple chandler’s family, in an equally simple village must rise to each challenge all while raising a small daughter, keeping a centuries old family secret, and struggling with the weight of leadership thrust upon her.
Fantasy novels are all the same right? In one sense, yes. The standard archetypes of the genre are well-known to readers. However, in his book, Jaafari turns it around. The majority of his prominent characters are women, each strong in their own right, and often working together to solve a dilemma to the benefit of their growing community. The male characters, while not weak in any sense, take on the supporting roles often delegated to minor female characters in the works of other writers. In recent months I have become more conscious of the Bechdel Test. There are three ‘requirements’ for any work (film, television, or book) to pass this test. First, there must be at least two named women in it. Second, do these women speak to each other? Third, do they speak about a topic not related to a male?
In the case of ‘First Empress of Mortar’, the answer to all three is yes. First and foremost is Jerya Chandler. In a post apocalyptic world, Jerya takes on her mother’s work of secretly preserving food in glass jars – the art of glass making is long-lost to her village – while keeping track of the various crafting houses ‘debts’ to each other, and performing the regular duties of a chandler. While this seems to set her up as yet another typical ‘housewife’, her role in the village requires undeniable neutrality, complete trust, a position on the village council. From this position she takes on the role of village elder at the age of 20 when her mother dies unexpectedly.
Sifra, the village herbalist, is shown to be a strong-willed, old woman who is both feared and respected for her medicines, and her decades of wisdom. Often it is the old healer to whom Jerya turns for counsel and support – though her ‘man’ (Jaafari’s term for husband among this group of people) also provides an ear and shoulder as any devoted partner would. Like Jerya, Sifra is also on the council, and hides her own frightful secret, in plain sight.
One other female character remains prominent in my mind after reading – Dessima. Born into the Tanner family, she soon finds life has more in store for her than anyone could have dreamed possible. From humble beginnings she rises to become one of the most respected, and daring people in the book through a harrowing experience. To say more would give away too much.
From his use of varying naming patterns, language structure, and other, often overlooked cultural details, (the differences in the way three disparate villages dance was particularly eye opening), Jaafari paints a landscape rich in diversity. There are constant reminders of just how different each culture is with respect to their neighbors, and yet remain so alike after nearly two hundred years of separation. Two isolated communities struggling to survive after a great magical war devastated the landscape, soon become players on a much larger stage. Strangers become allies, threats from the past re-surface, secrets are revealed, and the world is forever changed. Guiding everyone through the changes, and the fear, is one young woman. Jerya, clinging to the life of an ordinary chandler, and her small family, becomes the First Empress of Mortar in order to protect not only her own village, but two others as well.
What I love about this book is it realism. An odd word choice for a work of fantasy, but I stand by it because the people in this book are very real. They have strengths and flaws. They just want to live their lives in peace. The action comes and goes in waves, just as it does in my own life – though with more magical flare than my own. It was refreshing to read a work that centered on real people just trying to live their lives. Now don’t get me wrong, I adore my epic quest fantasies! However, A.J. Jaafari has done something with his book that I do not think I have read before: believable characters, in a believable setting, face challenge after challenge in their own backyard – so to speak. While reading those epic quests, I often wondered what happened ‘back home’. Jaafari showed me that, made me feel a part of his world, and most importantly, made me want to know more!
Hopefully my thoughts on this first time author’s work will encourage you all to read it. While you do that, I’ll be sitting on pins and needles waiting for the next book. No pressure Mr. Jaafari.
A.J. Jaafari’s book can be found on Amazon.