Author: Kameron Hurley
Genre: epic fantasy
Length: 507 pages
Publisher: Angry Robot Books (2015)
MY RATING: 5.0 stars
(Please Note: This review is based on the uncorrected advanced reader copy that provided by the publisher via NetGalley.)
Every two thousand years, the blood-colored satellite Oma rises, heralding a time of great change, the fall of one people and the rise of an empire. In The Mirror Empire, Hurley narrated the opening movements of the cataclysmic struggle that will end the current age. A scullery maid rose to the role of hero, thwarting the plans of the Tai Mora empress and complicating the delicate politics of the Dhai people.
In Empire Ascendant, the author throws her protagonists into new challenges as the Tai Mora finish their conquest of icy Saiduan and move south across the sea to Dorinah and then Dhai itself. We also see glimpses of the lands yet further south, Aaldia and Tordin. But the biggest flip happens in the prologue when the reader is thrust on the first page into the shoes of the first series’ prime antagonist, the Tai Mora Empress Kirana. It’s a bold move that pays off quickly. Hurley wastes no time establishing why Kirana has orchestrated the genocide of Dorinah’s Dhai slaves and the assassination of many Dhai (and their replacement with her own people who shared their names and faces).
Kirana did it (and will continue doing it) to protect her family: her wife Yisaoh and three daughters. They have no future in their world, wracked as it is with natural disasters. But in order to take them all to safety she must kill the Dhai who bear their faces.
The story then picks up more or less where The Mirror Empire left off. Lilia Sona, the young woman who can channel Oma’s power, has found herself in an awkward position. The refugees she led out of slavery in Dorinah see her as a savior, the reincarnation of the Dhai martyr Faith Ahya. But the Dhai leadership is a much more conservative (yet divided) lot. Lilia and her mentor Taigan argue for an aggressive strategy against Tai Mora. The reluctant Dhai leader Ahkio allows her to pursue it to a limited degree, if nothing more than to send her away. And then their situation only goes from bad to worse.
The second book in the trilogy is where Hurley could make or break the whole story. She takes things in interesting and sometimes entirely unexpected directions, telling the story of the Tai Mora invasion through the eyes of Lilia, Ahkio, and Kirana primarily. In doing so she raises big questions the way that fantasy literature should. These three characters all see themselves as doing the right thing for the people they wish to protect. They are undermined by others who also see themselves as doing the right thing. Kirana has no problem killing millions to save her people and her family in particular. Ahkio wants to preserve what it means to be Dhai. Lilia has to wrestle with how she is going to thwart the invasion that her mother and so many of the people she loved died to prevent. As they work towards their respective goals, these three all twist and grow, Ahkio perhaps most of all as he begins to bend towards Lilia’s point of view and Kirana’s campaign of conquest becomes devastatingly real.
Hurley also builds on the secondary protagonists from The Mirror Empire to good effect. Roh survives as a slave in Saiduan, where he questions his reverse of fortunes and the project to translate ancient Dhai books while the world crumbles around him and his captors. Maralah holds what’s left of the Saiduan government together, the power behind the throne of her ailing brother, fighting the bitter cold, the Tai Mora, and sexual discrimination all at once. Zezili is meanwhile sent south at the head of an expeditionary force to uncover some long-hidden secret. There she searches for her missing husband Anavha and tangles with the would-be King of Tordin and the one-time lover of the immortal Empress of Dorinah, Saradyn. These side plots serve to illuminate the further implications of the central plot centered upon Dhai, its two strongholds, and five temples.
Empire Ascendant is a masterful addition to the epic fantasy genre. The Worldbreaker Saga should be on the reading list of anyone who enjoys their stories complex, bloody, and thought-provoking. Hurley asks big questions through her narrative for readers to contemplate. What are you willing to give up to survive? What is worth fighting for? Who are you really, once everything you know is challenged and what was holding you back falls away? And finally: who are the heroes? After reading the second book in the series, I’m not so sure anymore.
I look forward eagerly to the conclusion in the series, The Broken Heavens, due out next year.