Mazes of Power by Juliette Wade
Juliette Wade’s 2020 debut novel, Mazes of Power, is the first book of THE BROKEN TRUST series. Wade has created a rigidly stratified society in a subterranean world as a way to answer big sociological and biological What-If questions. The book explores genetics, distribution of resources, social mobility and what happens when people prioritize the consolidation of political power above their own self-interest or even their own survival.
And the book is a novel of manners, a story of young love, and a tense political thriller in a world where assassination is simply one more tool in the toolbox, frowned upon but still utilized.
Mazes of Power follows three characters: two brothers of the First Family, Tagaret and Nekantor, who belong to the ruling Grobal caste; and Aloran, of the Imbati caste. The Imbati are the intimate servants of the Grobal. An Imbati contracts to a specific member of a Family in a relationship that is possessive, literally; an Imbati servant/bodyguard is referred to, for example, as “Della’s Yorn.”
Because of the rigid rules around the various castes, the Grobal are struggling to maintain a viable population. Since partnering with any other caste means both partners Fall to the lower caste status, the Grobal face a shrinking gene pool with all the problems that implies. Along with various genetic conditions comes a susceptibility to various diseases and an allergy to many vaccines, making the Grobal even more vulnerable as they cling to political power.
Tagaret has just reached the age of majority when an outbreak of a virus leads to the death of the Eminence, the supreme ruler, and triggers the competitive and deadly Heir Search. Every one of the Twelve Families puts forth their best male candidate, who must compete in a series of social events and interviews, to be voted on as heir. In previous Searches, candidates have been assassinated. By the rules of the society, both Tagaret and Nekantor are eligible candidates. Tagaret, the older son, sees the flaws in the system and chafes under its restrictions, but in his heart he has little interest in politics. It’s clear to him, though, that Nekantor is a dangerous choice. Nekantor copies the ruthlessness of their crass, violent father Garr. He is smarter than his father, and in many ways more strategic. In an early scene we find him gleefully predicting deaths for the advancement of the First Family.
“…We won’t be the sons of the Alixi of Selimna anymore, we’ll be the sons of the Speaker of the Cabinet. The First Family will advance to an unrivaled position. And then the Eminence will take fever and die, and there will be an Heir Selection, and you know what that means…”
Only Nek could sound so delighted when predicting death.
Nekantor’s strangeness goes beyond the acceptable ruthlessness. Of the three point of view characters, Nekantor’s is both the least comfortable and the most compelling. He is smart and strategic, but he is also young and politically inexperienced. Fundamentally, his brain works differently from others’. This combination of traits makes him interesting to follow and very dangerous.
Much of the drama in Mazes of Power, though, is domestic, played out in the suite of rooms that is home to Tagaret, Nek and Aloran. The society of Varin is an elaborately ceremonial one, with layers of language which incorporate daily ritual responses, where gestures and gaze direction communicate as much as words. At times, scenes read as melodrama, but given the restrictions placed on the Grobal cast, especially the women — called Ladies — the reader has to consider how much of the melodrama is also used strategically by the characters themselves.
We watch Tagaret mature quickly as the story forces him to. We see his mother’s inward rebelliousness play out, with a counterpart in the Lady Selemei, the one woman on the Cabinet, who tells Tagaret that “Ladies’ politics must always be indirect.” We see the hypocrisy and blind spots of the Grobal caste laid bare, when a solution to one of their many problems, the dwindling birth rate, is literally right in front of them. Tagaret and Aloran, in very different ways, struggle to make choices between what they believe is right and what will bring them happiness.
I did think that the romantic triangle in Tagaret’s life got resolved too easily, and Della, the Sixth Family girl he is attracted to, is one of the least developed characters here. This doesn’t mean she is undeveloped; we see her rebellion and know the roots of it. It’s simply that I would have liked to know more of what she thinks about things, and that we never see.
We see members of the other castes (there are seven, total) and Wade thoughtfully provides an appendix with a list of characters by caste, as well as the names of the deities, at the end of the book. The story is so well-written, though, that I understood what each caste was responsible for without looking at the appendix.
Mazes of Power concludes the storyline we started with, while leaving plenty of suspense and questions for later books. Around the edges of society, we see small but vital changes happening. The book satisfies, and leaves plenty set up for a complicated, engrossing exploration of trust, corruption and power.
This looks super interesting!
I liked it a lot. As you probably saw from the Sunday Status, Bill bounced off of it, and it does seem to get off to a slow start, since we don’t know right away why the events in the first two chapters matter.
Wade is a scientist. The book is engaging and dramatic and a good story, and she is still approaching the issues raised with a scientist’s mind.