Author: Kameron Hurley
Genre: epic fantasy
Length: 544 pages (paperback)
Publisher: Angry Robot (August 2014)
MY RATING: 4.5 stars
The Mirror Empire, the first book in Kameron Hurley’s new Worldbreaker Saga, is one of the reasons that I started this blog. I generally buy books rather late after their release, on strong recommendations from friends or if reviews are generally good. Here I took the plunge on a novel within a few weeks of its release. What sold it for me was the prologue.
In this review, like others I will do in the future, I will endeavor not to reveal too much of the plot. I’ll focus here on worldbuilding (that is, how the author makes the setting come alive) and some of the major characters and their journeys. The Mirror Empire is a dense book, full of details and intricate plotting.
The major characters (Lilia, Ahkio, Zezili, Roh, Taigan) and a number of secondary characters go through journeys of one kind or another, crossing boundaries, transgressing borders, and ending up far from where they started. I’ll touch on a few of these as I go along, but here I’m just skimming the surface. There is a lot to this book, and if you enjoy reading it, you should probably go through it two or three times more for all the connections that the author hints at along the way.
I had been familiar with Kameron Hurley’s nonfiction but this is the first of her fiction that I’d laid my eyes on. I recommend her Hugo-award-winning essay “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative.” The epic fantasy fan and military historian in me both clamored for more.
But on with the book at hand. I downloaded the sample off Amazon, and the prologue had me hooked. I was thrown into a strange world of walking, carnivorous trees; soldiers riding bears; and people living in giant cocoons. Hurley got immediate points for weird. And for me that’s something. The young protagonist, Lilia, is badly wounded–she loses half a foot to acid burns during an attack on her village–and then finds herself in a parallel world where things are the same but not the same. So far a weird start, then I’m in sort of a portal fantasy. But Narnia this ain’t.
On the other side, she finds that her people, the Dhai, are not like she’d known them on the other side. The sky is a different color, too–blue instead of orange–but there are still two suns, which Hurley describes as hourglass-shaped–simple but effective imagery.
The prologue ends with Lilia at a temple where we find out she’ll spend the remainder of her childhood, among the generally pacifistic Dhai. Her journey entails figuring out what she is supposed to do, why her mother sent her through to the blue-sky world. Others are traveling their own roads, but Lilia’s is the main current that holds everything together, sometimes in the background, but always there.
Over the course of several chapters and a few different points of view, details are revealed about the Dhai. The overall government seems close to a theocracy though, with a hereditary overall leadership position called the Kai, though the society overall is composed of a number of clans who hold most of the power. I couldn’t help but compare these Dhai (at least the ones in this blue-sky dimension) to Tolkien’s hobbits–egalitarian folk who value tradition and the good things of this life.
The Dhai have five socially constructed genders, and one is free to change one’s gender identity at will. Sleeping arrangements are also pretty flexible. There are group marriages or at least polygamy–one of the main Dhai characters, Ahkio, is a theology teacher who lives with a woman and her husbands.
The Dhai realm is protected by mountains and semi-sentient plants who also are the basis for the Dhai diet. The only meat that Dhai eat is other Dhai, usually for specific reasons.
Dorinah stands in sharp contrast to Dhai. It is a militaristic matriarchy that reminded me of a Roman Empire or ancient Sparta ruled by women. The Dhai who live there are by and large slaves who live in work camps (rather like Spartan helots) and belong to the immortal Empress. Men among the ruling class are treated much like women were (are) in patriarchical societies. The main characters that we get to know here are Zezili, one of Empress’s captains general, and her husband Anavha. They have a twisted relationship, probably even by Dorinah standards, that is by turns abusive and affectionate. Like a Roman patrician, the honor-driven Zezili takes any harm that comes to Anavha (not inflicted by her own hand) as a grave insult. She is also conflicted between loyalty to her Empress and the fact that a lot of her orders make no sense. She is brutal, fierce, and loyal.
Finally, there is Saiduan, a patriarchical empire separated from the island of Grania where Dorinah and Dhai lie by the sea. It is a land famed for its assassins, the sanisi, which has a Eurasian feel. At the beginning of the story, Saiduan is under attack from a mysterious invader. The Saiduan side of the story is told with chapters from the sanisi Taigan and his mentor Maralah, two of my favorite characters overall.
The characters are what really drive the story. They are not by and large a chatty lot. Hurley relies instead on a lot of internal monologue, relating through the character’s thoughts the history of their peoples, their own conflicts, and what they hope to accomplish. The point of view is generally rather distant compared to what I see a lot in epic fantasy (where a deeper POV is trendy), but overall it is effective.
The worldbuilding is engaging, as Hurley slowly reveals aspects of each society. The magic system is rather innovative, based on which of four stars is dominant in the sky at a given moment. When a character’s star is at its zenith, he or she can be incredibly powerful. Once it has set again, which may take a decade or more, he or she cannot access this power, perhaps for the rest of his or her life. Interesting limitation for the author to put on the characters. As the story opens, the dark star Oma is rising, an event that in the past has signaled the rise and fall of empires and that ties all the character arcs together.
The most prominent part of worldbuilding is gender identity (a wide range of man-eating plants is a close second). In Dorinah and Saiduan, gender is fixed externally, but like other things in Dhai, gender is fluid there, to the point of not mattering so much. In one scene at the Dhai temple, one minor character (in a crowded room, mind you) seems to change gender from one page to another.
Even in this strange new world, Taigan stands out as he/she/ze changes biological sex over the course of the book. It is something beyond the character’s control and even understanding. The Saiduan recognize intersex individuals, but Taigan is different, unique in this regard. This oddity is mentioned when Taigan is introduced and given his (he is a he at that point) mission to seek out omajistas among the Dhai–those whose magic aligned with the newly rising dark star. Taigan becomes a central character crossing boundaries between Saiduan and Dhai and between male and female and in-between. That Hurley chose to create such a character shows originality. That she uses such a character to deliver comic relief and witty commentary is a kind of brilliance.
It is not much of a spoiler to mention that Taigan gets the best lines. I found myself laughing out loud several times, slapping my poor Kindle against whatever surface lay nearby and disturbing an aging house cat in his slumber.
We learn about Dorinah primarily from Zezili. She is her Empress’s captain general charged with eliminating the Dhai living in her realm, for reasons that do not become clear until the end of the book. Read and find out! And so much of her story in this book consists of traveling from one work camp to another, committing genocide. It happens away from the cities where the upper class citizens reside, so no one much takes notice. But this is one of the weakest parts of the overall plot. The author doesn’t go into great detail about the genocide itself. Her focus is on what Zezili and her fellow legion officers are doing outside that time. The task weighs on her, because the Dhai are the basis of the Dorinah economy and because she is half-Dhai herself, the child of her Dorinah mother’s lower-class (or slave) concubine.
Zezili has a husband, and we see Dorinah through his eyes, too, but it is a very different world than the legions and work camps. For male readers (at least this one) Anavha is disturbing to read. He lives the life of a pampered pet, spending his days reading romance novels and cutting himself and generally kept under lock and key by his wife’s housekeeper. I await to see what Hurley will do with this character in the next book. Not to spoil anything, but he is intriguing for being what he is and what he could become.
All said, The Mirror Empire is an interesting, raw-nerved work of epic fantasy built from the ground up. You will not encounter the standard pseudo-medieval setting in Hurley’s narrative. Each of the three societies that she has created is very different, in terms of philosophy and how gender maps out. There are glimpses of how the parallel (orange-sky) world is different, and I hope to see more.
By the end of this first volume in her new series, the author leaves each of the main characters with a satisfying conclusion while putting to each of them new problems–Kameron Hurley has mad epiloguing skills. May the author not keep us waiting too long for the second installment.