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Book Review: Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley

Title: Empire Ascendant

Author: Kameron Hurley

Publisher: Angry Robot

Publication Date: October 6, 2015

Genres: Epic Fantasy

Shelves: Female-fronted, Female-authored

The Mirror Empire was a mind-blowing a read. It was an utterly amazing work of epic fantasy in which Kameron Hurley put her own spin on the idea of parallel worlds in a post-apocalyptic sort of portal fantasy, all while turning gender roles and relationships on their head. With an unapologetic feminist foundation, it was the most brutally violent female-led fantasy I had ever encountered. It was ambitious, awesome, imaginative, and exhausting in equal measure . . . and I had serious concerns as to how a sequel would fare.

Fortunately, the depth she established there proves to have even more layers (and worlds) than we thought, making Empire Ascendant a more than worthy follow-up.

Having brought two pivotal universes together at the end of the first book, Hurley continues to develop her worlds here. With the concept, the geographies, the cultures, and the characters already established, she is free to delve deeper and provide use with a more intimate understanding of the politics involved, as well as the family ties that so often drive them. Those conflicts are just as complicated and confusing as you might expect, given that we’re dealing with mirror universes and doppelgangers, and more than once we’re left questioning the morality of all sides.

And that’s where this book expands on the first, taking everything to a whole other level. We’re no longer just talking about ‘both’ sides here, no longer dealing with just the invasion of one world into another. As Oma’s rise approaches and the barriers between worlds grow ever thinner, there is a third power brought into play, one knows a thing or two about the breaking of the worlds

In reviewing The Mirror Empire I talked at length about the challenges involved in the read, the frustrations that often had me flipping back and forth between pages, and the sense of fascination that accompanied it all. Things do not get any easier here, and that is just as it should be. Hurley throws even more character points-of-view into the mix, introducing new characters and elevating secondary characters from the first book to positions of significance here. I immediately reconnected with the characters, and was pleased to see them grow and develop, but what shocked me upon my reread of the series is how my own loyalties and sympathies have shifted.

When I first reviewed Empire Ascendant, I called Zezili a dark, deplorable highlight. Now, encountering her a second time, I see her for what she is – a gender-flipped grimdark fantasy protagonist who is willing to endure death and disfigurement, betray her Empress, and sacrifice an entire culture simply to rescue her husband. She’s not your typical hero. She commits horrible acts in pursuit of her husband. There’s even a lingering question of whether she’s doing so out of love or possession. It’s not that none of that matters, but that it makes her even more fascinating, more complex. I would argue that Zezili is one of the most important epic fantasy protagonists of the twenty-first century.

Initially, I felt this second book pulled back from some of the work done in the first volume with gender and gender roles, but (again) upon a reread I’ve discovered that it’s all still there, just more assumed and less explained, with ‘ze’ and ‘hir’ pronouns having become so common, we cease to notice them. Hurley doesn’t need to call it out or wave the flag here because it’s just part of how her worlds exist, and that casual assumption actually makes it even more exciting. That’s not to say, of course, that it’s all left to subtlety. Not at all. I’m not sure who Saradyn is based upon, whether he’s supposed to be an archetype or just a counterpoint for all the feminist aspects of Hurley’s world, but he is so much of a male chauvinistic pig that he borders on parody. Pairing him with the quietly flamboyant Natanial, and then placing them both in close proximity to Anavha and Zezili, is a genius move that exemplifies so much about the gender gap.

As for the other characters, Lilia started to grow stale for me in the first book, but we see in her new life here that adds to the overall drama of the tale. Roh steps back a bit, spending more time in the shadows, almost throwing himself into the role of victim, but his arc has its surprises. Similarly, Nasaka is more a force or an influence here than a character, spending most of her time off the page, but her role is even more crucial than we could have expected. Taigan continues to be one of my favorite characters, gaining more depth as the story moves on. And, in a book defined by its damaged characters, Anavha probably surprised me the most, with his breaking near the end such a powerful scene. I wanted so much more for him, and I really hope he gets his moment in The Broken Heavens.

Although this is a middle book, things actually happen here. With the world, the scenario, and the characters already established, Hurley is free to focus on the action – and she delivers that in spades. This is a fast-paced tale that carries a sense of urgency from page one. You can feel the tension oozing off the page as the characters clash, cultures collide, and worlds approach an end. The plot develops as much, if not more so, than in the first book – and not always in ways you’d expect. There are twists and turns to the tale that even the most jaded readers won’t see coming, as the story careens downhill towards an uncomfortable precipice. While I knew very well after the first book that no character was safe or sacred, and that not all of then would make it through to to the end, I was still shocked by a few deaths and betrayals, and even one moment of emancipation, all of which leave the story irrevocably changed.

Empire Ascendant won’t win over any fans who were turned off by the violent, reverse sort of sexism and gender-bent sadism of the first book, but that’s fine because they were never the intended audience anyway. Like that book, this second volume is even more ambitious, more imaginative, and more wonderfully exhausting the second time around. I came away from it entirely satisfied and I am ready to plunge into The Broken Heavens,

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀

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