Mind-Bending Reads of 2014

As I said in my Best Novels of 2014 post, last year was a great year for reading, so much so that I want to do another list. There were a couple of books I read that didn’t make my list of favourites, and that I might not even have liked as much as books that didn’t make either of these lists. Nevertheless, there was something special about each of them – they offered things I’d never encountered before, gave me interesting idea to ponder, showed me different ways of doing things, or made me question my own assumptions and biases.

Here they are, in the order that I read them:

LagoonLagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

I’ve enjoyed Okorafor’s short stories but I struggled to connect with Lagoon, partly because it’s got loads of characters who you never get to know well enough, and partly because the story just failed to satisfy. That said, it very satisfyingly takes the epic alien invasion narrative out of the usual US setting (I get very very tired of these stories always happening in the States) and places it in Lagos, Nigeria, where the city’s chaos is deemed more suitable to the aliens’ plans. Okorafor lovingly depicts a city both frightening and fascinating, and weaves in local folklore and mythology. I particularly liked the part about a dangerous road depicted as a literal monster that eats the people and vehicles travelling on it. Lots of readers loved this book and despite my reservations I’d still encourage others to give it a shot.

The Mirror EmpireThe Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

I’ve only recently started reading epic fantasy with any kind of regularity, and since politics has never been my strong point I often struggle to focus on those aspects of the plot. It’s particularly difficult in The Mirror Empire because Hurley is so incredibly inventive and works damn hard to avoid all the tired traditions of the genre. So there’s a lot of wildly imaginative, totally unfamiliar stuff to take in, along with a very complicated political plot involving diverse nations and peoples with varying social structures. But the things that make it a challenge also make it an amazing book that feels like nothing else I’ve ever read. Hurley builds a whole new world from the ground up. Instead of horses and forests, there are bears and carnivorous jungles. Instead of misogynist feudal societies there is an egalitarian polyamorous society based on consent, a society that recognises multiple genders, and misandrist matriarchy full of female warriors and male concubines. There are vegetarian cannibals, a magic system based on astronomy… Basically, if you want epic fantasy with a strong emphasis on the fantasy, then you should read this book.

The Three-Body ProblemThe Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

As with The Martian, I tried to challenge myself by reading hard sf, while also expanding my reading with Chinese sf. This one proved to be a much more demanding, with some very technical content that went waaay over my head. It’s also a historical novel, with parts of the narrative set during China’s Cultural Revolution and lots of references to that period and Chinese culture. This could make the book pretty alienating at times, but I still enjoyed it. The real drawcard is an epic story of first contact deeply influenced by the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. The story moves slowly, but when it’s good, it’s magnificent. The only reason I didn’t rate it higher is that it’s has a lot of flat characters, including an incredibly dull POV character who is little more than a tool to move the plot around. Still, The Three-Body Problem sets a thrilling story in motion, and I’m looking forward to the sequels, which several people have suggested I will enjoy much more.

We Have Always FoughtWe Have Always Fought by Kameron Hurley

Yes, Kameron Hurley has two entries on this little list. I would recommend this book to ALL sff readers and writers. Seriously, EVERYONE. Kameron Hurley won a Hugo award for her essay “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative”, on false assumptions about the roles of women in history (eg. that women don’t fight in wars), and the subsequent depiction of women in sff. This book is her collection of blog posts about sff, writing and publishing, most of which are similarly political. And it is a brilliant, eye-opening, mind-broadening read. Hurley points out how unthinking some genre stories can be, while offering myriad ideas for thinking more acutely about character, race, gender, worldbuilding, plot, etc. Reading it might make you feel frustrated to notice how wide-ranging these problems are or make you feel disappointed in favourite stories you’ve never questioned before, but it’ll also help you appreciate authors who think beyond the norms and make the effort to write better worlds.

This book also gave me even greater appreciation for Hurley’s novels, which I already admire. She often writes with unflinching honesty about the difficulties of writing fiction, getting your work published, and trying to get it sold. Along the way she offers loads of insights into her own novels, frequently making me want to go back and look at something I missed or reassess something I judged unkindly (like my annoyance with a sickly, disabled protagonist in The Mirror Empire). I didn’t put it on my list of favourites only because some of the essays are a bit boring, and can get a bit ranty and repetitive, tending to blur into one another if you read it cover to cover. That doesn’t make this any less of an absolute must-read.

Do you ever try to expand your reading? Did you read any eye-openers last year?

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Best novels of 2014

Happy New Year everyone! 2014 was a great year for reading, especially after a somewhat lacklustre 2013. As I think back, it seems that this was a year for making much-needed changes, challenging myself, and trying new things. That made it a tough year, at times, but also an exciting one that sets the stage for an even better year in 2015 🙂

I can only hope that there’ll be just as many great books as I read in 2014. Here are my favourites, in the order that I read them:

The Broken KingdomsThe Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

It feels like such an age since I did this read-along that I was a bit surprised to see this on my Goodreads list of 2014 reads 🙂 N.K. Jemisin’s Interitance Trilogy showed me that I actually should be reading epic fantasy because it can be so, so awesome. In this sequel to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Jemisin expands on the mythology, adding new perspectives to a story that seemed clear cut at first. The protagonist is a blind artist whose had a lot of gods in her life, because their magic is the one thing she can see clearly.

Besides being simply amazing fiction, The Inheritance Trilogy is also the perfect option for anyone looking to diversify their sff reading.

 

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

Andy Weir must be the biggest self-publishing success story – The Martian started as a free serial on his blog, got picked up by major publishers, and is now being made into a big Hollywood blockbuster directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon (due to be released in 2015).

At first, I wasn’t sure this would be the book for me – a survivalist story set on Mars with lots of hard science? But I wanted to challenge myself and it paid off in spades. The Martian is a fantastic page-turner, and although there is a lot of hard science, the author makes it palatable enough for any reader. I was worried that it’d get boring, with most of the narrative focused on a man alone on Mars, but Mark Watney’s endlessly optimistic and humorous personality kept me entertained. I can’t wait to see the movie.

 

Six-Gun Snow White

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Valente! Her name is enough to sell me a book, and I snatched up a copy of this Subterranean Press limited edition when it came out. Valente’s writing and imagination is like nothing else out there, and I particularly like her use of myth and fairy tale. Six-Gun Snow White is dark, brutal and just as strange and beautiful as I hoped it would be.

Now can someone please do special editions of the rest of her books? I will just give you my money.

 

 

The Girls at the Kingfisher ClubThe Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

It’s the fairy tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses set in 1920s New York. The twelve Hamilton sisters are forbidden by their father from ever leaving the house, but Jo, the oldest, takes them out every night to go dancing in the city’s speakeasies. It’s the best life she can give her sisters, until their father decides to solves his financial problems by selling them off in marriage. Historical fiction isn’t normally by thing, but stepping out of my comfort zone has been one of the best things about 2014. Valentine’s book was sheer joy to read.

 

City of Stairs

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Out of 2014’s favourites, this one was the most thrilling, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring… It was extremely fucking impressive. I love gods and mythology, and like N.K. Jemisin, Bennett has created his own to make one of the most amazing fantasy worlds I’ve ever read. I also love it because its protagonist is a skinny, bespectacled, unassuming woman who turns out to be the only one badass enough to save the world specifically because she’s a total geek. That said, I also have a very soft spot for her assistant Sigrud, a hulking berserker who is single-handedly responsible for the best action scene in the book.

 

Devilskein and DearloveDevilskein & Dearlove by Alex Smith

I’m very picky with YA, but I was thoroughly enchanted by this South African take on The Secret Garden. It’s set in one of my regular Cape Town haunts – Long Street – with characters who are charming, belligerent and despicable (occasionally all three). It’s rather dark, with its friendship between a grief-stricken young girl and a demon who wants her heart, but that’s why I like it.

 

 

 

Bird Box

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Now THIS is the kind of horror I like. Tense, disturbing, and gets gory only when it really means something. Horror stories often falter when the monster is revealed, but Malerman neatly eschews this problem with creatures that people have to avoid looking at, because one glimpse will cause them to commit gruesome suicide. The characters blindfold themselves whenever they’re outside, knowing they could be surrounded by monsters at any time. It’s not flawless, but it scared the hell out of me.

 

 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

This book was so good I decided not to read another novel after it just so I would end my year’s reading (of novels) on a perfect note. Like Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, its protagonist lives his life over and over again, but this book is so much better because Harry August remembers everything about his past lives. The way his experiences build on one another makes for a fascinating personal struggle in itself, but the main plot of the book is an impending apocalypse – one of these time travellers is causing the world to end, and it’s happening faster and faster. Harry is in a position to do something about it, but his first question is why he should do anything at all; the world will end eventually.

To explain what he ultimately chooses to do, Harry relates the story of his many lives. His introspective journey eventually builds into quite a nail-biting thriller, but the real beauty of this book is the way all Harry wrestles with ethical questions, influenced by the weight of centuries of accumulated knowledge and experience. It’s one of the most accomplished new novels I’ve read. I want to re-read it right now, and it feels like it could become one of my long-term favourites.

 

So tell me, did you have a good 2014? And what were your favourite reads?

Betrayal’s Shadow by Dave-Brendon de Burgh

Betrayals ShadowTitle: Betrayal’s Shadow
Author: Dave-Brendon de Burgh
Series: Mahaelian Chronicle #1
Published: 25 April 2014
Publisher: Fox & Raven Publishing
Source: own copy
Genre: epic fantasy
Rating: 6/10

For five hundred years, the Mahaelian kingdom of Avidar has been ruled by King Jarlath, whose mysterious magical powers make him a force that no one can oppose. He began his reign by uniting humans against the Elvayn dominion, but now even his iron grip can’t stop the kingdom from faltering. Civil unrest may become a serious problem, and General Brice Serholm is sent to investigate reports of rebellion in the one of the provinces. However, his ship is attacked by a group of islanders wielding magic no one knew existed, and Brice is consumed by the fate that befalls his Blade Knights. It falls to his second-in-command, Alun Dronald, to do his duty if Brice will not, even after a brutal battle leaves Alun forever transformed.

In the capital of Cambeith’ar, a man named Cobinian sets a sinister conspiracy in motion. First he kidnaps an Elvayn child, saving it from mutilation so that it will be able to use its incredible magical powers. Next, he gives a special dagger to Seiria, the Mistress Concubine, who is torn between loving and hating King Jarlath. Then, he gives a note to the king’s First Advisor Del’Ahrid, undermining Del’Ahrid’s trust in the king while feeding his own dark ambitions. Finally, Cobinian creates an epidemic of Reavers (zombies) to attack the city.

So, I’m delving into the epic fantasy genre again, this time with South African author Dave-Brendon de Burgh. It’s the only local epic fantasy that I know of, and it’s great to see SA authors branching out. Hopefully De Burgh’s book will be the first of many.

First off, I’m so glad the novel avoids one of the clumsiest traits of epic fantasy – infodumping. There are no long, dreary tracts on travel, architecture, irrelevant history or whatever else the author thought was so cool that the plot needed to grind to a halt for it. No, Betrayal’s Shadow is surprisingly short at only 263 pages, and exposition is kept brief. If anything I wanted to know more, as opposed to feeling that I had to trawl through too much. And without infodumping to weigh it down, the plot can move along unimpeded, making this a fairly brisk read.

But unfortunately there were aspects that dragged me down. For example, the book did not give me a good first impression – it kicks off with a scene where Brice, a blonde, blue-eyed soldier in heavy armour, leads a force of white knights in fighting a tribe of naked, pierced, tattooed black people who are described as “probably-illiterate barbarians” and “savage”. After the fight, Brice wakes up in a hut full of crude furniture and is surprised to find that the tribespeople removed his armour, because they don’t look to him like people who would know anything about armour. Things are not all they seem, but even then, perpetuating these racial stereotypes is unnecessary.

Brice’s racism sets the tone for the parochial world of Avidar. Pretty much every character whose appearance is described is white and blonde with blue or green eyes. Everyone follows the same religion (the Mahaelian Church). People don’t seem to know anything about the world outside of their kingdom. Brice and his Blade Knights clearly had never heard of the island they encountered, even though it was en route to their destination. References are made to areas that were subdued by war, but little is said about lands the king does not control. But there are definitely other lands, because King Jarlath has started something called the Far Continent Project, in which his people will set sail on giant arks to find new lands that they can explore and exploit for minerals, lumber, farmland and living space. In other words, a colonisation project, except that everyone conveniently avoids mentioning what they’ll do to the people already living there.

It wouldn’t be Avidar’s first crime against another race. Centuries ago, the Elvayn were the dominant power, but the humans overthrew them with Jarlath’s help. Rather than wiping them out, King Jarlath chose to keep them as slaves. Because the Elvayn can wield incredibly powerful magic by singing, every Elvayn has its tongue cut out at birth. They’re kept in slave-holds across the kingdom, although they aren’t slaves per se – they don’t do any work (I checked this with the author). There is one case of a merchant using an Elvayn girl as a servant, because rich people are sometimes allowed to use Elvayn slaves, but this comes off as a special circumstance put in place to get a specific aspect of the plot going. In later scenes, people freak out when they see an Elvayn child outside of the slave-holds, so they are certainly not a part of everyday life.

It’s easy then, to see why people hate and fear the Elvayn. Historically they are the enemy. If even a few of them were allowed to keep their tongues, they could easily take their revenge on the Mahaelians. The average citizen doesn’t exactly live in comfort, and has every right to be angry that the king wastes money on the Elvayn for reasons he refuses to disclose. And even if there were no sociopolitical issues, the very idea of mutilating babies and imprisoning a whole race of people for centuries is simply grotesque.

Their continued existence is a mystery that bothers everyone, but Jarlath isn’t exactly politically savvy. He doesn’t have to be – he can single-handedly destroy entire armies on the other end of the continent (which makes for a rather good action scene), so he doesn’t have to be a good king. And he’s not; he’s a tyrant and all-round piece-of-shit human being. He responds to opposition with extreme violence. When Del’Ahrid started his job as First Advisor, Jarlath told him to constantly undermine the governors and ambassadors by playing them against each other. When Jarlath gives a speech about the Far Continent Project, he goes on about how totally awesome the kingdom has become, when in fact it’s only a nice place if you’re a man with money. None of the POVs are from an average citizen, but there are hints about how much people struggle to get by while the wealthy live in luxury.

Avidar is also a crap place to be if you’re a woman. This is pretty common in epic fantasy, but that doesn’t excuse it. The High Cleric in the capital might be a woman, but apparently her brother Del’Ahrid got her the job and one of the first things she reveals about the religion is that it’s based on pain and wives can be punished for not doing their “duty” towards their husbands. Violence against women is frequently used in the narrative. Almost every woman mentioned gets beaten or raped at some point, and the word “whore” is grossly overused. The Reavers (zombies) are created when a man rapes an Elvayn girl. An ambassador is “punished” by having his wife thrown in a jail cell for three days to be gang-raped. Del’Ahrid physically abuses both his sister and his wife, and treats his poor wife like shit because she was forced to marry him and never learned to love him (even though she tries really hard to be friendly and polite).

Most of the abuse is directed at Seiria, the Mistress Concubine, i.e. the court prostitute. She’s there to please Jarlath, who also hands her out to other men. Given that prostitution is her profession, the question of consent is murky, but it’s worth noting that Jarlath chooses her partners, and she feels she can’t leave because she’ll be totally destitute. Thus, she puts up with having to sleep with whoever Jarlath commands her to, and being slapped around, not only by random dignitaries, but also by Del’Ahrid and Jarlath himself. At one point I’m pretty sure that he sends her to a Senator knowing that this guy would beat the shit out of her, just so that he could use that as an excuse to execute the man (but not before the Senator calls Seiria a whore as often as he can fit the word into his sentences). Then, late in the novel, Seiria is revealed to be the victim of what might just be the worst act of sexual violence I’ve come across. I’m still struggling to wrap my head around it.

As the only major female character in the novel, not to mention a woman surrounded by men who are either despicable or bland, I wanted to like Seiria, but I found her frustrating. She loves and hates Jarlath in what looks very much like a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Which is fine, but she spends the entire novel agonising about it. When Cobinian gives her a dagger and she sneaks it into the palace (where weapons aren’t allowed) it looks like she might take some action, but instead she just thinks about holding it to Jarlath’s throat and demanding that he admit he loves her, or stabbing him because he doesn’t. Even after witnessing a zombie massacre, all Seiria can think about is the absurdity of loving Jarlath. And I don’t agree with the idea that Jarlath could never admit to loving her – he is powerful enough to do whatever he wants, including marrying a prostitute he found on the street. Seiria has my sympathy but I desperately wanted her to do something other than pine for Jarlath. It looks like she’ll play a role in the next book, but in this one she’s all victim.

Paradoxically, the character I hate the most is the one I consider to be the best-written – Del’Ahrid. He has serious anger management issues. He physically and emotionally abuses the women in his life. There isn’t a moment when he’s not being an insufferable little shit. He’s never strayed from Jarlath’s trust-no-one approach to politics. He’s always suspicious, always critical, always treating his peers like enemies.

But what I like about his character is that it’s more layered than the others. You can always tell how his view of the world differs from others’, and you can understand his stupid behaviour no matter how much you hate it. He’s not as smart and sly as he thinks he is. He believes in protocol and hierarchy above all else, even in the face of death and disaster. He seems genuinely shocked when people act like ordinary human beings instead of always following the rules. His indignation when people fail to show him the proper formalities as First Advisor is quite entertaining. That said, I do find him difficult to read because he makes me so angry. It’s a bit like having Joffrey Baratheon as a POV character.

A few other things before I go. There are aspects of the worldbuilding that I wish were clearer or more deeply embedded in the world. The Mahaelian religion, for example. It defines the entire kingdom and the series, but except for a short section written from the POV of the High Cleric near the beginning, we learn almost nothing about the nature of the god Mahaelal, or the tenets and practices of his church. Characters often swear by Mahaelal, but religion doesn’t feature in their decisions or daily life.

Worldbuilding aside, the book will also leave you with a ton of unanswered questions simply because it’s very much the first of a series. Lots of things are set in motion, while absolutely nothing is resolved, and the second book isn’t out yet. Finally, if you’re a pedantic reader, be warned that this book needs a good edit – it’s full of errors.

But, overall, not a bad read for something that’s not my genre of choice. It pissed me off quite a lot, but it also got me thinking a bit about passive and unlikeable characters and my reaction to them. There are lots of things in Avidar’s society that raise my hackles, but at the same time it’s a society that’s about to undergo a massive change partly because of the things that are wrong with it. What’s also quite cool is that the author has set up a Goodreads group for the series, where he’s available to discuss it and answer your questions (I’ve already gone to bug him). And if you want to read a bit more while waiting for book two, you can check out the prequel short story “A Song of Sacrifice”, about the Elvayn and their Singing magic.

Daily Reads: Monday 24/11/2014

Daily Reads 17112014

Morning guys! Last week was rather unproductive blogging-wise, but I did get a lot of reading done, so I should have some reviews for you this week. In the meantime, here’s some online reading to kick off your week.

– Are you thinking of buying any South African YA this Christmas? Local author Sally Partridge has put together a lovely YA gift guide.

– Author Alis Franklin, writes a letter to readers about Beauty and the Beast and loving monstrosity: “Because what’s the point of a lesson in accepting difference, for loving people for what they are, when the “reward” for success is conformity?”

– Ken Liu chats briefly about translating Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (which I recently reviewed). It involves so much more than just converting words from Chinese to English; I really admire the work Liu has done.

– iO9 lists 7 worldbuilding tropes science fiction and fantasy need to stop using. And dear god yes, enough with medieval fucking Europe! This is one of the reasons I’m usually not interested in epic fantasy. It’s beautiful, I know. I’d also like to ride a horse through forests and rolling green landscapes, or be offered a cup of wine in a castle, but it’s so boring and unimaginative in fiction. Isn’t the whole point of fantasy to be fantastical? Go read The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley to see how it’s done.

Daily Reads: Monday 17/11/2014

Daily Reads 17112014

Morning everyone! I’m online early-ish today (for some parts of the world, anyway), with SA author Dave-Brendon de Burgh’s debut novel Betrayal’s Shadow on my desk, ready to review. Before I get started on that, here are today’s Daily Reads:

– Jared from Pornokitsch has been sick in bed reading duchess porn, and came up with a list of five things epic fantasy can learn from historical romance. I particularly like the points about sex, gender equality (yep, even historical romance is waaay more progressive) and a sense of humour. And now I kind of want to read duchess porn…

– The Little Red Reviewer interviews one of my favourite authors – Ken Liu! He chats about his themes, translating Chinese sf, and gives the best answer for reading translated sf – not because it’s ‘good’ for you, but because it’s fun to try new things.

– Lynn’s Book Blog hosts author S.L. Eaves for a guest review of the home-invasion horror movie You’re Next! (2011). And it sounds pretty good! I like horror, but I do find that the genre tends to generate a lot of crap, so I’m always glad to hear about something worth watching.

Have a great week guys 🙂

 

Daily Reads is my new little feature for helping me get more organised about my online reading, and sharing my favourite posts with you. If you know of something cool you think I should check out, please let me know in the comments 🙂

GUEST POST Not My Country: 5 Things I Learned About Worldbuilding from Traveling Abroad by Kameron Hurley

If you’re at all interested in serious, progressive sff, then you will probably have heard a lot about The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley lately; it’s the kind of convention-defying, mind-opening fantasy that all fans should be reading. Kameron won double Hugos this year, and I don’t doubt that The Mirror Empire will get her nominated for several awards again next year. She’s currently on one of her incredibly prolific blog tours following the launch of her novel from Angry Robot, and has been kind enough to make another stop at Violin in a Void. Welcome back Kameron!

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The Mirror Empire

The best writing advice I ever got was to read outside the science fiction and fantasy genre and travel. There’s nothing like getting out of your everyday surroundings and plopping yourself into someplace difference to see just how much cultural baggage you’re carrying around. Here are the top five things I learned about how to build better fantastic worlds – simply by traveling around more in this one.

    • Knowing a thing and experiencing a thing are different, and you’ll have a whole new view of the world when you experience all those things you think you know. There were all sorts of things I knew, intellectually, about race and poverty and sexism and my place in the world. But getting out into the world and seeing those things in action changed the way I felt about them. It’s all very well to say one understands poverty and chronic illness, too, but until I had experience with those things in my personal life, they were still just concepts, like watching something that happened to someone else on TV. Traveling gave me a chance to see and experience different ways of living. Some good, some bad, all very different from mine. When it comes to building fictional worlds, it’s easier to build believable ones when you’ve had some inkling of wider experience beyond what’s in a book.

 

    • People are much better than we think. Our obsession with the evil of the world, with mass murder and serial killers and genocide, often gives a lopsided view of the world. If all we see presented are people being awful to each other, we’ll start to think that’s all people ever are. But the reality is that even the places that I went where not everyone was fabulous, the majority of people still were. Often in the most surprising places. Your world may be the grimmest of the grimmest darkiest dark, but without a ray of hope, without kindness, without a measure of good, none of us would survive very long. I discovered that adding hope and humor to my stories went a long way to making them more livable, and, frankly, more realistic.

 

    • Caution is fine, but saying “yes” will lead to far more opportunities. I got a lot of well-meaning folks cautioning me a lot when I did most of my traveling, alone, in my 20’s. Everyone sees a young woman traveling alone, and the only time we ever see that portrayed in the media is usually when some young woman goes missing. These things happen, yes, and it’s a real concern. But the truth is that these sorts of stories and cautions also work to hold women back from fully experiencing life in a way that men are not. I recognized early that traveling would come with risk, but so would sitting still. This experience, being a young woman traveling alone, led me to ask how dangerous the world was – or was perceived to be – for folks in my fantastic worlds, too. It turns out that building an escapist and fantastic world, for me, could be doing something as revolutionary as building a world where it was possible for a young woman to travel alone unquestioned. Madness!

 

    • Language is awesome, and you should learn to speak as many of them as you can. I spent some time traveling through Switzerland, taking a train ride across this country where one minute everyone is speaking French, and the next… German. In Durban, South Africa, I could hear three or four different languages and six different accents every single day, easily. Growing up in northwestern U.S., I led a pretty insulated life. The only other language I ever heard until my teens was French, and only because my grandmother and aunts spoke it. Once I had to start navigating the world outside my little slice of it, I wished I’d learned more of it, and two or three more languages besides. Language is rich, fun, complex – and adding this to your worldbuilding, instead of relying on a “common tongue” or monolithic language or magic translator, can add an incredible amount of depth to your work.

 

  • We’re all more alike than we are different. I talk a lot about difference in my work, and how we don’t show the full measure of diversity in the world – let alone diversity of the imagination, of what could be – in our fiction. But what interests me most is what stays the same when we change everything else, from what we eat to how we organize ourselves. When we pull everything else away, it turns out we all want to feel loved, to love, to feel that our lives matter. How we express that differs, but what makes us human across time, across cultures, is just as interesting as what makes us uniquely ourselves. And it’s that part of our humanity, our capacity for love, for kindness, for empathy, that I never want to forget in my fiction, either.

 

About the Author
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God’s WarInfidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschie Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed MagazineYear’s Best SFEscape PodThe Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror EmpireTitle: The Mirror Empire
Series: Worldbreaker Saga #1
Author: Kameron Hurley
Published: 04 September 2014
Publisher: Angry Robot
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: epic fantasy
Rating: 6/10

I normally start a review with my preferred kind of plot summary – one that covers all the major inciting events and most, if not all, of the key characters. But it just doesn’t work with The Mirror Empire. This book pushes the boundaries of what it means to be “epic”, and from the very beginning you’re in the middle of a strange world, surrounded by characters, bombarded with backstories, while caught up in complex current affairs and personal conflicts. I won’t lie – I found this book difficult to read and review, but here goes.

The Mirror Empire relates the beginning of a war brewing between parallel worlds. ‘Mirrored’ worlds. They have the same hourglass suns. They have the same stars, which give various powers to those gifted with magic (known as jistas). They have the same people, more or less. But each world has moulded those people in very different ways. In one the sky is amber, the Dhai race wage constant war, and the world is dying. In the other, the sky is lavender-blue and the Dhai are scholarly pacifists in their own land and slaves in another. On both worlds, the star Oma is rising, a cataclysmic event that has dire consequences for the politics of magic and leadership throughout the land. Those who are gifted In the blue-sky world where most of the story is set, different regions wrestle with each other, while seething with their own internal conflicts. A large cast of diverse characters drive the story, which is set across a variety of locations, each with its own culture.

And that’s just a very, very broad overview of the plot. Given how much hype this book has received, you’ll have no shortage of plot summaries available anyway, so I’m going to take advantage of that and delve into other discussions. There is a lot I really appreciated in this novel. It’s not only impressive in its scope, but in the way Kameron Hurley seems to have considered all the conventions and lazy assumptions of fantasy (epic or otherwise) and said “FUCK THAT”. She subverts everything, from the bottom up.

For example, the characters don’t ride horses. Horses don’t even seem to exist. They ride dogs or bears with forked tongues. The landscapes in Dhai are not forests and open grasslands, but treacherous jungles of semi-sentient, occasionally carnivorous trees and vines. The plant life is so savage that it has to be razed to build homesteads, and then kept at bay with fences, protective webbing or magic. Travelling through this woodland on foot or by bear/dog presents a unique peril. Weapons like swords are only sometimes made of metal – many warriors carry ‘infused’ swords made from plants that spring from a seed inside the wielder’s wrist, or wrap around the wrist, binding the wielder to the weapon. Even food is different. You get a kind of paradoxical vegetarian cannibalism – people who don’t eat any meat except human meat, although only in certain circumstances; humans are not kept like livestock. Food is also made from blood, insects and the strange plants, none of which is treated as exotic. There is one occasion when a character balks at the weird food, but it’s when he’s served the kinds of meat and fish dishes that are more familiar to us.

Then there are family structures. I don’t recall coming across any patriarchal, heterosexual nuclear families (ie. one man, one woman, and however many kids). In Dhai, families are large, polygamous units with a very egalitarian feel. In Dorinah on the other hand, families are matriarchal but deeply sexist. One of the POV characters, a general named Zezili, has a beautiful husband who is more like a concubine, sitting quietly at home while she goes off on military campaigns. With this kind of marital structure comes a different view of gender and the body, as you can see in the way Zezili describes her husband:

He wore a white girdle that pulled in his waist just above the hips. He was, of necessity, slender. She believed men should take up as little space as possible. He wore his black hair long over his shoulders, tied once with a white ribbon. Those men allowed to live were, of course, beautiful; far more beautiful than many of the women Zezili knew. Anavha was clean-shaven, as she wanted him, lightly powdered in gold, his eyes lined in kohl, eyes a stormy gray, set a bit too wide in a broad face whose jaw she had initially found almost vulgar in its squareness. He stood a hand shorter than she; she easily outweighed him by fifty pounds. She liked him just this way.

Zezili is very gruff and not especially likeable, but she and her husband – along with other characters – undermine several gendered stereotypes or norms – women as slender beauties, men as strong warriors (most of the warriors are female), men as leaders. In Dhai and Saiduan, there is also more than one gender – the Dhai recognise five different kinds (male/female assertive, male/female passive, and ungendered), each with their own pronoun, and the Saiduan have three physiological sexes. There’s even a character – an immortal warrior assassin – who periodically changes gender.

It makes sense then, that in these societies heterosexuality is not the norm. In fact characters don’t categorise their sexuality at all. People are simply attracted to other people, rather than specific genders. You could say that bisexuality is the norm, although the term doesn’t really apply when there’s no heterosexuality or homosexuality to define it against. No one is particularly possessive either – having multiple sexual partners seems as normal as having multiple friends, although it’s a bit different in unequal relationships like Zezili’s marriage (she can lend her husband out to her sisters, for example).

I like that there’s this balance of good, bad and grey-area characteristics to these societies. It’s not simply a utopia of sexual freedom and progressive family structures, but a different kind of society with its own problems and advantages. So it’s cool that you have female warriors like Zezili, but not that she has the power to own her husband like a sex toy. Then there’s the story arc of a character named Ahkio: he becomes Kai (the Dhai leader) when his sister dies, but he and others are uneasy about this, because the Kai has traditionally been a woman gifted with magical powers (of which Ahkio has none). It’s not that the Dhai discriminate against men, but rather that people tend to cling to tradition.

And some parts of the world are pretty racist. Both the Saiduan and the Dorinah keep slaves, and most of those slaves are Dhai. So some Dhai are comfortable, well-educated and enjoy the support of large family units, but quietly ignore the fact that their own people are slaves in other parts of the world. This becomes an important plot point later in the book, and the issues of slavery and and racism also make Zezili’s story one of the most interesting. Zezili is half-Dhai, half-Dorinah, and achieved a position of prestige in service of the Empress because her Dorinah mother accepted her, thus favouring the Dorinah half of her heritage.

She’s given a tediously gory and baffling task – to systematically slaughter all the Dhai in the slave camps, supposedly to quell some rebellion. Zezili is not one to question her Empress’s orders, but she finds the task depressingly easy and wonders why the Empress is crippling their society, which relies on the labour of the slaves to function. And, in the back of her mind, Zezili knows that once all the slaves are dead, half-breeds like her will be next.

I enjoyed specific aspects of the story like this, but now I need to get into what I found problematic, which is that, on the whole, this is an overwhelming sprawl of a novel. As I said, I found it to be a very difficult book in some ways, and several things contribute to that.

It’s a totally unfamiliar world. This is part of what makes it great, but it also means that, throughout the book, you’re concentrating on all the new details. It not just a few cool ideas, but entire landscapes, social structures, cultures, a magic system etc., all of which have bearing on the plot.

Then, while trying to picture the contemporary world, you’re also given the history behind it. There is an unbelievable amount of backstory that you need to understand before you can get a good grasp of the current story. I’ll be honest: I don’t think I got much more than a general idea of either. Because, as I’ve mentioned, the plot is a pretty complex one too, and it’s told using many (too many?) characters. It took me a while to get to know the cast, some of whom start getting POV chapters later in the novel, or disappear for several chapters so that you can’t quite remember who they are when they pop up again. If I had the time, I would have re-read the book and made twice as many notes before attempting this review. I will definitely have to re-read it before I even think of attempting the sequel.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t get particularly attached to any character, except perhaps Roh, a charming young parajista (he has magic abilities linked to the star ‘Para’), and Zezili (unlikeable, but in a way I like). Ahkio, the ungifted man unwilling pushed into in a leadership position usually given to gifted women, has one of the most potentially interesting story arcs, but I found him a bit bland, and got bogged down by all the politics and people involved in his chapters. The ‘main’ character Lilia, who we meet as a child in the first chapter, fulfils, in some ways, the standard trope of  the orphan with hidden Powers and a Destiny, but differs in other ways. She was handicapped as a child, when acid burned half her foot off, and she’s asthmatic. She’s hopeless at magic, but brilliant when it comes to strategy and puzzle-solving. You know, according to storytelling convention, that she’s eventually going to get stronger and more powerful, but she still has to deal with her disability, and her journey is characterised by terrible violence that strips her of that golden aura of nobility that typically surrounds this kind of character. These are the kinds of things that should make Lilia one of my favourite characters, but instead I found her tedious. I’d like to meet her in the next book, but in this one? Meh.

So, do I think The Mirror Empire is a good book? Yes, mostly. I cannot fail to admire Hurley’s ambition, and what’s she’s achieved as a result. Epic fantasy often looks to me like a somewhat stagnant genre, where too many of the books are so lacking in imagination that it’s more like vaguely historical fiction than fantasy. But you can’t say that of this novel; Hurley’s world is jsut so invigorating.

That said, this was too much of a sprawl for me. It’s so challenging, in a way that tends to more tiring than enjoyable. I took ages to finish. I don’t mind that it’s quite slow, building up to what will surely be massive, devastating events, but I do wish that it was more focused, more tightly written. It looks geared to be an influential book in the genre, so I’m glad to have read it, and I’m glad to have read an epic fantasy novel that takes a fresh approach to worldbuilding, social structures, sexuality, etc. But it’s not going to be one of my favourites.