PREVIOUSLY ON THE MIRROR EMPIRE . . . (hum appropriate theme music here)
Lilia crosses over from the world she knew into one that is both familiar and strange. The sky is the wrong color, and her people, the Dhai, are peaceful folk, not the warriors her mother always warned her about. She grows up in the Temple of Oma, keeping to herself her origins and how she came to be there.
And now here’s The Mirror Empire reread, part 2:
The land of Saiduan lies to the north of the island of Grania (where Dhai and Dorinah are situated), a cold land of tundra and snow. The northern-most province has fallen to mysterious invaders from another world who drive before them black, slithering plants that leave death and destruction in their wake.
Maralah prepares to receive the invaders as they approach the north’s last city, Aaraduan. The ruler of Saiduan, the Patron, has already departed for the south with whatever papers and resources his closest advisers and bodyguards can carry. She presides over the burning of the city’s ancient archives, because the invaders apparently are after some written knowledge–after they take a city, they rummage through its libraries. And she is certain that if none of them left behind will make it out alive, that the invaders will not learn whatever they’re after. She is a sinajista but since her star is not in the ascendant, she cannot rain fire and thunderbolts on the invaders. She does have a sword like the valley Dhai in Lilia’s world infused with the power to steal souls.
Besides Maralah, we meet two of the assassin-sorcerers (sanisi) she commands. Kadaan is the youngest, in his 20s, and intent on dying on his feet rather than surviving as a slave.
The other sanisi is Taigan, who has previously rebelled against the Patron. He is in Maralah’s service. She suspects he cannot die, but is certain that he is not always a he. She sends Taigan on a mission to find an omajista among the Dhai, a sorcerer who can open and close gates between worlds.
Taigan has a rather low opinion of the Dhai but he goes anyway.
Then she braces herself for the invaders’ assault, biting her sword into the living flesh of the fortress, apparently drawing power from it. We’ll see if she survives.
Back in the Temple of Oma, Lilia has been doing manual labor (she hasn’t shown any other ability as a jista). She changes beds, cleans dishes, and manages the temple’s bee hives, all while hobbling on the foot damaged beyond repair in the prologue. She has a low opinion of those who do have the talents she lacks. The Temple of Oma trains the best of the best, and boy do they know it.
She encounters Roh on the stairs. He’s grown into a favorite among the female novices, who are jealous of his friendship with Lilia. Some are more vocal than others about it, and we get a view of Dhai society’s five genders: male passive, male aggressive, neutral, female passive, female aggressive. Each Dhai assigns his or her own gender identity, and it’s a grave insult to touch someone without consent or call them by the wrong pronoun.
But back to Roh. He found the symbol her mother drew on her wrist and insists that she drop what she’s doing and go up to the assembly room (which is off limits to drudges like her) to see his discovery. This could spell trouble. We also learn in passing that the Kai (Kirana) is sick and assembly room is where the Kai meets with the Oras (chief religious leaders with the greatest magical gifts) and the clan chiefs who rule over the people.
They get caught together by one of the Oras. Roh wants Lilia to kiss him, but she just wants to be friends. We get some details about her like her love of strategy games. The place on the map that matches the trefoil on her wrist points to a temple that does not exist at a location across the country from the Temple of Oma, near the Dorinah border.
Roh and Lilia are dismissed by the Ora, but they overhear a man with a sword talking to four of the Oras in the hallway. Taigan has arrived, it seems, and he’s insisting on seeing the Kai. “I’m here to save your maggoty, cannibalistic little country. Against my better judgment.” Welcome to Dhai, Shao Taigan.
And now for something completely different!
Ahkio wakes up next to his cousin Liaro (“a long, lean man with a face that would inspire no poetry.” Ouch.) and three female members of the Dhai militia.
“It was not an unpleasant way to start his morning.” Uh huh. I’m sure it wasn’t.
We learn he’s an ethics teacher who shares a house in the clan Osono lands with the very pregnant Meyna, her child, and her two attentive husbands. Ahkio it turns out would like to be husband number three, but she’s not sure he would really bring very much into the marriage.
It is also revealed that Ahkio has scars on his hands from burns (he’d rather avoid answering students’ questions about how he got them with humor) and that his sister is Kai (“a warm, sometimes aggravating, and often wise woman who believed in him even when the rest of the country wanted to see him exiled for madness after the death of their parents”). The other important thing we learn as he’s teaching his students is he believes government is created by people, not some divine power. The roots of the Dhai people are in Faith Ahya and her lover Hahko who led them out of Dorinah five hundred years earlier. And now all Dhai have a part to play in determining their future.
Well said, professor.
That night, as he’s fetching wine from the cellar, he encounters his aunt, Ora Nasaka (his father’s sister) from the Temple of Oma. Lean, fifty-ish, hawk-nosed, and said to resemble Ahkio in appearance.
She has dire news. Kirana is dying, and Ahkio is the only heir. Oh boy. So much for a quiet life in the country, teaching theology to shepherd children. He is to go to the Temple and assume his place. There is some suspicion that someone was behind it, someone in Clan Osono perhaps. Ten years earlier, Meyna’s sister in law Yisaoh (sister to her husbands, the half-brothers Rhin and Hadaoh whose father is Tir) contested Kirana’s place as Kai. So politics is afoot–and possibly assassination.
Ahkio leaves that night with Nasaka. He is concerned that she’ll turn him into what he hates–all the politics and everything. His tenuous relationship with Meyna, a conciliation for the bad blood between their families, seems to be at an end.
* * *
Some important chapters for setting up the conflicts later in the book. Maralah wants to defeat the invaders at any cost and sends Taigan to find omajistas who might be able to close the gates the invaders have opened. Lilia, now a teenager, is conflicted in her feelings for Roh, her need to reunite with her mother if she can, and not wanting to be under the thumb of the Temple any longer. Finally, Ahkio is thrust from his quiet country life into the center of Dhai politics. I hope this post helps set up some of the important details early in the novel.
Next time, the plot begins to thicken as several of the novel’s important characters cross paths in the Temple of Oma.