Book Review: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Title: The Mirror Empire

Author: Kameron Hurley

Publisher:  Angry Robot

Publication Date:  September 1, 2015

Genres: Epic Fantasy

Shelves: Female-fronted, Female-authored

There aren’t too many books that make me take a step back and say “Wow” but this is one of them. The Mirror Empire had an absolutely amazing beginning, one of the best opening chapters I’ve ever read, and just kind of steamrolled ahead from there. It’s hard to describe just mind-blowing a read this is. It’s an utterly amazing work of epic fantasy with a feminist foundation and an abundance of strong women, and which does stunning things with gender, roles, and relationships.

What Kameron Hurley has crafted here in the first book of The Worldbreaker Saga is as much a work of imagination as of ideas. It’s different than anything else on the shelves, often challenging in places (I found myself fighting to catch up and find my place more than once in the narrative), but what I took away most is the feeling of complete and utter awe. This is an epic fantasy in the truest sense of the term, set within a naturally hostile, almost post-apocalyptic environment, and framed by an intricate theory of mirror worlds and alternate realities.

Let me try and break the book down a little bit to talk about each of those points above. First of all, I want to touch on the challenging nature of the narrative. Here we have a new world to understand, one that’s different than anything we’ve read before. We have multiple races and societies, with twisted/altered mirror counterparts, and a complete subversion of gender and gender roles. Hurley really just drops all of this on the reader, and doesn’t bother with any sort of info-dumps or hand-holding. The learning curve is immediate and immense, and she layers on new challenges throughout. The ideas are so fascinating, though, that you can’t help but eagerly anticipate the next piece of the puzzle. The challenge never gets frustrating or tiresome, and even if you need to flip back and reread a few sections as you go, there is an ultimate payoff for that effort.

As for the world-building, it’s what immediately differentiates the novel. Here we have carnivorous, overbearing, murderous plants and trees that have to be constantly fought back with sword, fire, and the salting of the earth. The concept of the bone trees alone, incorporating the splintered bones of their victims into a sort of impenetrable bark, is as stunning as it is creepy. Even the buildings of Hurley’s world are a product of that environment, with a clear distinction between heathen constructions of stone, and more enlightened halls of living, breathing, ever-growing flora. Above that world of eco-horrors is a series of moons in the sky, orbiting the world in uncertain cycles of years or even centuries, and bestowing different magical talents upon those who are able to draw upon each, with the structures of power changing as each moon waxes and wanes. Beneath those moons, carving out their own place in the world, are villages and temples that are almost idyllic, and easily the most familiar representations of the genre.

I could write for days and not even begin to explain what Hurley has done with gender and gender roles here, but it’s something worth exploring and experiencing. For the most part, this is a world of matriarchal societies, with women taking on the roles of rulers, warriors, and more. That, however, is a gross over-simplification. There are as many as six genders in the worlds of The Mirror Empire, depending upon which society we’re talking about. There are assertive males and females, passive males and females, those who are ungendered, and a rare few who can shift and flow between genders. Adding to that wealth of diversity, the relationships are multi-layered and dynamic, with polyamorous marriages involving multiple husbands and wives the norm, and sexual orientations within those marriages just as fluid as the gender roles.

Lilia is the hero here, and she is surrounded by, aided by, and challenged by a host of strong women like Ghrasia, Maralah, Nasaka, and Zezili. It is through Zezili that we get one of the most intimate looks at gender and gender roles in the novel, with her husband, Anavha, a beautiful, submissive man who wears cosmetics and a girdle, whom she discourages from unsuitable activities like reading, and whom she loans to her sisters for sexual use. Theirs is a relationship that subverts the most archaically sexist expectations, and yet there is love there – so much love that it spurs Zezili to alter direction and spur actions that will change the fate of worlds. And then we have Taigan, the genderfluid omajista who pursues Lilia, an ataisa who not only changes pronouns, but who physically flows through gender changes, at great pain to themselves.

As for the mirror worlds themselves, they are both the most fascinating and most complex element of the tale. The idea of parallel worlds is hardly new, and neither is the idea of marauding armies marching from one world to another. However, what’s unique about Hurley’s tale is the way in which she plays with the idea of alternate worlds, demonstrating how differently each has evolved or progressed as a result of decisions or events in the past. What’s more, she has established her worlds in such a way that each individual has a mirror world counterpart, one with whom they cannot coexist. So, you not only get the idea of parallel worlds and alternate histories, but doppelgangers who have usurped their counterparts and insinuated themselves into other worlds, twisting empires into driving towards their own defeat. To make matters worse, or perhaps even more dire, we are dealing with a story of genocidal warfare with alternate races fighting themselves from the other side. It’s darkly philosophical and very, very trippy, but it all resonates.

The story does suffers from some pacing issues in the middle, but once it picks up, it careens along towards a pair of climaxes, a clash of cultures and societies, one of which is almost over too soon, and the other of which opens up a whole new world of possibilities for Empire Ascendant. Ambitious, awesome, imaginative, and exhausting in equal measure, this is a book that is even better the second time around.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀

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