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.