The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
Published: Angry Robot Books, 2014
Series: Book 1 of the WorldBreaker Saga
“On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past...while a world goes to war with itself. In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin. At the heart of this war lie the pacifistic Dhai people, once enslaved by the Saiduan and now courted by their former masters to provide aid against the encroaching enemy.
Stretching from desolate tundra to steamy, semi-tropical climes seething with sentient plant life, this is an epic tale of blood mages and mercenaries, emperors and priestly assassins who must unite to save a world on the brink of ruin. As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war; a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family to save his skin; and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father's people or loyalty to her alien Empress.
Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself. In the end, one world will rise - and many will perish.” ~WWEnd.com
This is the third book I’ve read by Kameron Hurley. I’ve read God’s War and Infidel from her science fiction bug-technology trilogy, and have unfortunately not yet read the conclusion, Rapture (a failure of planning, not of intent). I bought The Mirror Empire during Hurley’s book-launch promotion, so I actually have a copy with a signed book plate! I believe I will also be receiving a review copy of The Empire Ascendant at some point, so hopefully I’ll manage to have that review up near the publication date. In other news, Hurley is also going to be publishing a space opera novel, The Stars are Legion, in 2016!
The Mirror Empire is the first novel of an unusual, dark, epic fantasy series. If you think that the description in the blurb above sounds very complicated, that’s because it is. While it features the usual detailed cultures and magic system of epic fantasy, the setting itself is far from ordinary. This is world of organic buildings and mobile, carnivorous plants, where the magic rises and falls with the prominence of the various satellites. It is also a world that can be connected through blood portals to other, ‘mirror’ worlds, where the same peoples have experienced differing histories that have led to a wildly diverging present. There’s a massive amount of information to take in, but it is revealed only as it becomes directly relevant. This approach avoids long explanatory sections, but also makes it a little difficult to get a sense of the world early on. So far, though, getting to know this world has been worth the effort, and I expect that the familiarity gained through this novel will make it much easier to dive into the next.
The world of The Mirror Empire also follows the current trend toward dark, gritty fantasy, where any given character can very easily be hurt, maimed, or killed, and the lines between good and evil are blurry at best. The death and violence throughout could be a little overwhelming at times, but the novel never quite went past my ‘grimdark’ limit. Part of that may have been because the grittiness of the setting was not established through the particular use of culturally-sanctioned violence against women. In fact, gender roles and expectations appear to vary significantly across the variety of cultures and races. In one culture there are three recognized genders, and in another, one can self-identify as any of five accepted genders. The closest any culture comes to the usual gritty fantasy setup is Dorinah, where pseudo-medieval gender roles are reversed. It was one of the more interesting twists on a generally boring culture that I’ve read, though I am happy that this culture was not the sole focus. I’m curious to see how these cultural differences will affect the story to come.
As in most epic fantasies, the novel follows a handful of diverse viewpoint characters. The four primary characters are Lilia, Ahkio, Roh, and Zezili. Lilia seems most like a fantasy protagonist to me, with her tragic past and her great magical potential. However, she is neither beautiful and nor completely able-bodied, and she spends a lot of time focusing on protecting herself from a world that would kill her without a care. Ahkio has been thrust into a leadership position that he neither expected nor wanted, and I spent a lot of time tensely waiting for him to fail horribly. I enjoyed the Roh’s childish exuberance, but I dread to see what the world will eventually force him to become. Zezili, a powerful woman of Dorinah, carries a lot of the negative traits that are often forgiven in heros, and I am curious to see how she may develop in future novels. There were also a handful of interesting secondary viewpoint characters, such as the Dhai hero Ghrasia and Zezili’s delicate husband Anavha. I enjoyed the very different perspectives provided by each of the viewpoint characters, and I think that this is a group I will happily follow through the sprawling fantasy story that The Mirror Empire has begun.
My Rating: 4/5
The Mirror Empire starts off a dark epic fantasy series that takes place in a very unfamiliar world, and features a set of characters that don’t fall into the standard epic fantasy archetypes. The world is incredibly complex, with many cultures, multiple worlds, a satellite-based magic system, and an unusual physical setting. There are no long explanations to break up the narrative, so an understanding of the world is pieced together as you go along. The viewpoint characters are diverse and have interesting flaws, and I think it is a group that will make for an entertaining long-term story. I’m already looking forward to the sequel!