LitStack Review: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

by Sharon Browning
The Mirror EmpireMirror Empire
(The Worldbreaker Saga, Book 1)
Kameron Hurley
Angry Robot
Release Date:  August 26, 2014
ISBN 978-0-85766-556-0

It only took one book for me to expect great things from Kameron Hurley:  the first of her “Bel Dame Apocrypha” trilogy, God’s War (published January 2011).  It was a challenging book, brutal, full of gristle, told in an unsentimental manner.  I found it complicated, confusing, especially since it explained nothing; in all honesty, it took me three tries before I finally embraced the book.  But once I committed, it was a tremendously rewarding experience.  Reading it has left a lasting impression.

The Mirror Empire (the first book in a “saga” of “at least” two books) is both more accessible and more complex than God’s War.  And it’s also already left a lasting impression.

If there is one young, modern author who knows worldbuilding, it’s Ms. Hurley.  (I’m assuming she’s in her mid-30s; there’s no birthday/date listed for her in obvious places, but in 2007 she made a blog post entitled “Things Other People Did At My Age” that begins, “At age 27…”)  Other writers, very talented writers, can take a world and spin amazing tales, but she can take a tale and spin an amazing world.  As far as I’m concerned, she’s on par with China Miéville, and that’s quite the compliment.

The world that she’s created in The Mirror Empire is both familiar and hauntingly strange.  It deviates from our own in fanciful yet carefully applicable ways – for instance, carnivorous plants that not only populate but roam the land, giving a unique aspect to everyday survival – and yet it maintains the feel of epic fantasy.  Everything, even the strangest things, hinge together coherently without a need to willingly suspend disbelief.  Typical fantasy tropes get twisted in ways that are recognizable but distinctly different.  One example:  there are no magicians or wizards, but there are people who are “gifted” with inborn aspects of heavenly bodies; as their stars are in ascendency, so their powers become more potent and more easily called upon, which adds extra layers to the political intrigue pervading these societies.  There is no “convenient magic” used as a vehicle to advance the plot; instead, the plot seems to advance due to a lack of convention rather than drawing from it.  It’s masterful.

It’s also a richer world in The Mirror Empire than what Ms. Hurley presents in God’s War, a more lush, prettier, more accessible world.  But still, it’s not a kind world, nor an easy one.  Life in this world can be a very brutal, full of strife and short on basic human decency or compassion.  There is kindness, yes, but it tends to come metered out in small doses.  There is loyalty, but that loyalty is often accompanied by an underlying sense that it’s misplaced or given blindly.  Still, the world has hope for its future, and within it exists small pleasures and a few personal satisfactions, a world of wonder and mystery and value.  It’s a world that you end up caring about a great deal.

But it’s also a broken world.  That shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler, given that the series’ arch-title is “The Worldbreaker Saga” (and yes, I realize that “worldbreaker” has a specific meaning within the book, but that makes my point no less salient).  There is more than one world in play in this volume – that much is established at the onset – but to say much more about it (or trying to expound upon the plot or action) would indeed spoil some of the enjoyment that comes from the unfolding of the story, so I will go no further.  That’s right – no synopsis.  Don’t worry – it’s for your own good.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in The Mirror Empire is keeping all the characters and their relationships straight; there is a huge cast of players in this novel.  Add in hidden allegiances along with unknown or unclear fealties, and it can become quite disorienting (for once, I actually appreciated the glossary in the back of the book – but with my anal retentive nature, I almost wish I had started a spreadsheet with names and color coded lines drawn between them to delineate relationships and loyalties).  Yet, having this convoluted, teeming canvas to draw upon is part of what makes Ms. Hurley’s world resonate so deeply:  we are kept guessing at many levels, not just in action, but in motivation, accountability and even morality.  To spread the reader’s comprehension any less thin would almost seem disingenuous, in some strange and marvelous way.

Thankfully there are some touchstones that anchor the book:  Lilia Sona, a young scullery maid in the Temple of Oma, whose mother had pushed her through a mysterious blood-opened gate ahead of a vicious attack from ruthless invaders; Ahkio, the ungifted brother of the Kai – spiritual ruler of the Dhai – who is suddenly and unwillingly thrust into the leadership role at a time of unparalleled strife and threat; Rohinmey (“Roh”)Tadisa Garika, a novice parajista (a term given to the gifted who can call on the powers of the star Para, allowing them to manipulate air) who dreams of becoming a sanisi (assassin warrior) yet who the seers declare will be a man of peace; Zezili Hasaria, leader of a legion of warriors who serves the Empress but is torn between unflinching duty and her legacy of being a born to a dajian slave father.

(A fun sidebar – I have yet to encounter another writer who can come up with as many imaginative, fluid and believable fantasy names as Kameron Hurley.  Heck, she could make a fortune just renting her character-naming skills out to other, less anthroponymically inclined fantasy authors.)

Also unsettling – and thrilling – is the way that Ms. Hurley flips gender; it is the women in her world who hold most of the real power.  Women are the strong ones, the leaders in battle, the heads of state, the ones with the keys to the kingdom.  Women often have more than one husband, and sisters will routinely share husbands (which leads to very complex familial relations); husbands are commonly considered property in some cultures.  There are strong and talented men, too, yes, but women tend to be the fighters, the swaggerers, the schemers, whereas the majority of men are meant for service, for servitude, for administration, for pleasure.  There is a third accepted gender in this world as well (ataisa), with both male and female attributes, and even a scattered few who physically and emotionally alternate between male and female (not by choice, by cycling physiology).  None are considered abhorrent.  This makes for a very interesting dynamic.

An intriguing story full of gripping characters set in a complex, gritty fantastic world – The Mirror Empire has it all and promises more where that came from.

Well, what are you waiting for?  Go read!

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