So, what's it about? Like all good stories, it's the tale of a character going through her life. While superficially a novel somewhere on the Game of Thrones spectrum about the political machinations of a fantasy empire (though Maia is closer to -- and even drops some veiled references to being -- historical fiction rather than fantasy), the heart of the story centers around the titular character and her trials and tribulations as she grows from a teenage girl into a young woman. It encompasses elements of action, adventure, romance, and, our favourite, erotica.
Now, there are a lot of things one can criticise Maia for. Most notably the paper-thin romance subplot and the disappointing wind-down to the end of the novel after its climax, along with the unsatisfying resolution to the main antagonist's story contained therein. However, while these are pretty large problems in the scope of the novel as a whole, they're overcome by the endlessly compelling moment-to-moment storytelling and the endearing nature of the book's protagonist. Maia is one of those heroines I would've gladly stuck with for a thousand additional pages just for the joy of spending more time with her. Richard Adams is a master at creating varied, nuanced, deep characters, and it shines through more strongly in this book than in any of his other works, I feel.
Maia also has the special status of being one of the first books that got me interested in erotic storytelling. While by no means a work of erotica in the modern sense, Maia frequently uses sex as a storytelling device, and manages to make several sections of the book disturbingly exciting as a result. It's a bit of a shock, coming from the author that gave us Watership Down, but Adams' ability to lace a story with so many erotic elements definitely speaks to his skill as a writer. Maia is a dark book, but it isn't grim. This is the key distinction I like to repeat over and over when I talk about all my hang-ups with Game of Thrones -- dark subject matter does not have to be bleak and depressing if the author utilises it correctly.
Maia spends much of her time in the novel as a concubine, a pampered sexual servant to the rich and prosperous in the city of Bekla. This section allows the story to take on a very traditionally erotic style of narrative; the discovery and exploration of a young woman's sexuality.
We're also treated to a handful of other sex scenes throughout the novel, one of which is the most telling and explicit exploration of a character I've ever come across in literature. Without spoiling too much; the fantasy of an all-powerful authority figure submitting to the most debasing humiliation possible at the hands of her slave is by far the most memorable scene in the book to me.
Maia is ultimately a very traditional story about a girl rising from simple beginnings to a position of power and status in society, and the trials and tribulations she faces along the way. The simplicity of this formula is what makes it work, and this book is a testament to the richness that can be wrung from even the most basic premise by a talented author. But what makes Maia so charming is that Adams takes this premise one step further: the heroine moves on from the pinnacle of high society to realise that all of the money and status in the world never make for true happiness by themselves. It's a fantastic arc of a young girl developing into a mature woman by realising that the fairytale fantasy is neither what she wants, or even needs, out of life. While the central romance is, as mentioned, relatively weak in itself, the thematic purpose it serves of allowing Maia to grow as a character in this way is utilised perfectly.
I could gush about a dozen different characters and scenes all day, but ultimately Maia is rich and compelling storytelling on its most fundamental level. It sucks you in, takes you on a journey, and provokes you in all the right ways without ever letting itself go off the rails. It may be a little rough around the edges, but if there's one goal I aspire to as a writer it's to some day write a book that's comparable in scope to Richard Adams' Maia.