Because all of life is stories.
Alright, making good on my promise of reviewing more than just white dudes on my blog this year, I’m finally sitting down to write this review that I’ve had queued up for several months. This is another one that made my top books of last year, and it deserves a more full review than the scant bits I posted a few days ago.
So. The Mirror Empire. Book one of Kameron Hurley’s new Worldbreaker Saga was one of the books that came to me the same way Red Rising did. Social media. After weeks of it showing up everywhere in my feed I grabbed a copy. And I devoured it.
The Mirror Empire takes place in a world of three moons, and magic powers that rise and fall as the moons and their stars dominate the sky. Each person with power makes a claim on one of these heavenly bodies, and their power waxes and wanes depending on the time of year, or the year itself. The truly powerful can draw from their source even when it isn’t visible in the sky. What’s cool about this is that power is therefore doled out geographically. Being in a different part of the world changes your proximity to your source, and therefore the power available to be drawn from it. The novel takes place at a time when Oma, the legendary fourth body, is beginning to appear in the sky. To some this is heresy. To some it is a crime to suggest such a thing exists. To others it is a terrifying sign. According to legend, the last time Oma rose, the world was destroyed. From this point our story splits into several different narratives. Each one follows a different story, but they all lead inexorably back to the belief that the world will soon end, and not everybody is following the same path to salvation.
In the south a shadow war of succession has begun, and the first male leader of the society that time can scrounge up or remember has a lot going against him, including suspicious clan heads, murderous shadow warriors, and a culture that for thousands of years has relied upon a matriarchal line of succession to stay strong.
In the north the war for control of the world has begun. An unstoppable wave of an army has landed from worlds unknown to claim a land that has been destroyed before, and will be destroyed again unless some very powerful magicians, not to mention a young orphaned southern girl, can do something to stop it.
To quote the great Jack Skellington, “It’s a world unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and as hard as I try, I can’t seem to describe, like the most improbable dream.” Hurley’s Empire takes place in a brutal and at times horrifying world of sentient forests and man-eating mobile trees. A world of ice and mud and fire. The greatest of warriors carry biological weapons that sprout from their very veins, and the power of blood runs hungry and strong under any star. Hurley moves us from destination to destination at breakneck pace, always several steps ahead of a reader that can do nothing but hold on as they are pulled along, gleaning bits and pieces of the world like beacons in a storm. All the things I love about Brandon Sanderson and his worlds; the rules, the strict magic systems, the minutiae of knowledge, Hurley fragrantly launches out a window with a hearty laugh and pulls you along in the dark, giving you sparse breadcrumbs to put together to form the world around you. It’s beautiful.
I couldn’t do a review of this book without bringing up how socially powerful and important this book is as well. Hurley takes the traditional roles of men and women in fantasy and firmly shakes them upside down. Nearly all of the leaders and generals in the world are female, and it’s evident the lengths she went to take the patriarchy and kick it hard and square in the testicles. It’s a world where certain cultures treat men like property. Most cultures are traditionally led by women. The opinions and ideas of men are more likely to be scoffed at than those of women. Beyond the dramatic role reversal, consent and gender play heavily in the taboos of many cultures. I was thrilled to see gender fluidity and the idea than identity is something chosen by the individual and not the society fully embraced.
Now let’s talk about consent.
On the one hand, she treats it phenomenally. The southern cultures treat touching without consent as one of the most heinous crimes a person can commit. This doesn’t just extend to sexual touching, but to hugs and shaking hands and pulling up people who have fallen. Any manner of non-consensual touch is seen as a breaking of taboo, and it’s great. But not every culture or character is like that. Let’s talk about Zezili. Zezili is in many respects one of the heroes of the story. She’s somebody to root for. She’s strong and a great commander and a (mostly) moral person who cares for her warriors. But then there’s the rape.
I know why it’s included. I know the exact purpose behind writing Zezili as someone who purchased her husband. I’m fairly certain I understand what I’m meant to feel when she sexually brutalizes and torments her husband. I saw it as another reversal of terrible fantasy tropes that need to die an agonizing death. But it made me angry and uncomfortable and detracted from the book for me. Like I said, I understand the stylistic choice of including those scenes. I’m fairly certain the point is to make men feel as uncomfortable as women are when they read those scenes in other fantasy books. I applaud her for that. But it still detracted for me. That’s a personal thing though. Your mileage may vary.
The Mirror Empire was something new and unique, at least to my knowledge. It brazenly turns tropes on their heads and creates a horrifying and fascinating world to examine social issues in. It tells a compelling story that has me dying waiting for the sequel. I want more of the magic. I want more of the characters. I just plain want more. This books should vault Kameron Hurley to the same ranks of the fantasy world as people like Brandon Sanderson, Jim Butcher, Ursula Leguin, and all the rest of them. I look forward to many many years of work from a new and unflinchingly powerful voice.
Read The Mirror Empire. It’s powerful in all the right places and a breathe of fresh air in a genre that always has room for another brilliant voice.