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. 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 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.
Much can be said about the author of The Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley. She’s a two-time Hugo Winner for her non-fiction essays, she’s sometimes the angry woman on the internet, and her views on the business of writing and on the SFF community are fascinating. However, most importantly she’s the acclaimed author of The God’s War trilogy. I’ve not yet read this series, because in first instance the bugpunk label put me off as creepy crawlies give me the heebie-jeebies, but it is now on my to read pile awaiting its turn. But I’ve heard nothing but praise for Hurley’s writing, so when Angry Robot announced they’d acquired Hurley’s new series, an epic fantasy series no less, I was determined I wouldn’t miss out on this one. And it’s a good thing I didn’t, because The Mirror Empire is one of the most exciting fantasy books I’ve read this year and looks fair to make it into my top ten for 2014.
The Mirror Empire is not an easy read, by which I mean it’s a book that requires you to work and to engage with it—there is no leaning back and simply consuming with this one. The narrative is complex and it took me a while to find my footing within the setting, to get a clear enough idea of the political situation and the societal setup that I’d have to stop and think every other page to remember how something fit into that.
The book contains four distinct cultures, one of which is also mirrored in the titular Mirror Empire. And these cultures are quite different from our own. The clearest difference is the way Hurley positions gender. There are five different genders, female assertive, female passive, male assertive, male passive, and ungendered. The way these genders interact and how they influence the structure of the different cultures is fascinating. The clearest example of how different it can look is in the matriarchal society of Dorinah, which is ruled by the female-aggressive and where men are little more than pampered possessions and any sign of aggression on their part is punished with a whipping. This division of power made me question my own views and assumptions, because especially Zezili’s rather crude and callous treatment of her husband Anavha shocked me, while on closer consideration had this been a male lord in some grim-dark novel, I wouldn’t have blinked twice at it.
In Dhai there is also a culture of explicit consent – no one is supposed to touch another in any way without gaining their consent – which sometimes came across a little fussy, but did illustrate how easily boundaries are crossed, especially if you aren’t familiar with the new culture you’re entering, whether by literally crossing a border or just how actions are perceived different between genders. It also made the complicated familial structures within Dhai society even more complicated. The Dhai are a polyamorous people, with people marrying into groups and creating large families. But how would this work in a marriage where some partners having given blanket permission for some of their spouses to touch them, but not others? Hurley doesn’t exactly expound upon these elements – they are just part of the world – but thinking about them gave rise to many questions on my part.
The magic system is equally complex. There are several houses of practitioners called Temples, with each temple serving a particular celestial body with the force that powers their magic tied to that particular planet or star. Each house has its particular skills and affinities, such as healing, death magic, control of the air, etc. Because they are tied to stars and planets that wax and wane according to their movement across the heavens, there is a fluid state of power politics. I found this truly fascinating as we see several of the characters tied to Para, which is in decline at the start of this novel, planning for a live with lesser or no powers. The magic system and the caste of magic users is also tied into religion, with for example the Dhai secular leader also being the Head of the Temple of Oma.
Outside of all the topics Hurley tackles, which are interesting and quite relevant to the current conversation in SFF, she also manages to tell a fantastic story. She weaves together a number of story lines featuring a large cast of characters. The story lines range from a coming of age story to a quest to the solving of a murder mystery. Hurley juggles all of these deftly, without ever dropping the ball or losing sight of one of her characters for too long. I very much enjoyed following along, never once feeling the urge to flip ahead to see when we would return to a particular character. I did have my favourites – I particularly liked Lilia, Ahkio, and Roh – but I found all of them interesting.
With The Mirror Empire Hurley has stepped into the epic fantasy arena and done so in a decisive and impressive way. The Mirror Empire is bound to make a splash in the epic fantasy pond comparable to Ann Leckie’s disturbance of the SF field with Ancillary Justice. Let’s hope it will be similarly rewarded and well-received come awards season. It’s certain to feature on my awards ballot come Hugo time next year.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.