Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review - The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Short review: Oma is rising, and entire nations, indeed whole worlds, will fall.

Cross-world invasion
War, murder, and genocide
Oma is rising

Full review: The Mirror Empire could be compared in some ways to the books of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, and it does bear some striking similarities due to the complex politics, shifting point of view, and unflinching brutality. The comparison sells The Mirror Empire a little bit short, as it is much more than a simple imitation of Martin: Hurley's work is a triumph of imagination and world-building, with a diverse array of extraordinarily carefully-drawn cultures set in an often bizarrely alien world. As if that wasn't enough, Hurley crafted not one, but two interlocking fantasy worlds one on a collision course with another, and populated both with an array of complex characters that are at times heroic, at times pathetic, and at times repulsive, and always fascinating.

This is not an easy book, either in subject matter or presentation. Even though the story is set in a fantasy universe, and the characters are all drawn from the exotic cultures Hurley has crafted, she does not hesitate to portray the people who populate her world as being both as noble as humans can be, and also as depraved and vicious as humans can be. There are scenes of murder, mutilation, rape, self-harm, and every other form of cruelty and indifference to human suffering. This is not a story for those who are squeamish about such things. The story is also difficult to get a handle on, at least at the beginning. Hurley offers no compromises to the reader, throwing them into the shift narratives with minimal explanation of the beliefs and customs of the various cultures, or even much guidance in the nature of the world itself. Instead, Hurley trusts that the reader will sort things out by context, presumably confident that the quality of the writing and the story will keep the reader engaged until they can sort out the details. This makes the book somewhat foreboding at first, as the reader is thrown into the narrative deep end and expected to stay afloat without much help. This makes the early chapters of the book somewhat confusing as one works to make sense of the strange world and its exotic inhabitants, but this seems to reflect the confusion the characters themselves are experiencing, so the disorientation experienced by the reader may very well be an intentional choice made to enhance the impact of the story.

By treating world-building as an organic exercise, Hurley leaves herself plenty of opportunity to get right to the intricate multi-character plot, and she wastes no time on that score. From the very opening pages the reader is thrown into the heart of the action as Lillia finds her home invaded, her mother taken away, and herself thrown into an entirely different and unfamiliar world and a temple life that restricts and confines her. The story shifts viewpoints every chapter, rapidly introducing Ahkio, a teacher forced into the role of leader of his people after the death of his sister, Rohinmey, Lillia's friend who wants to be a dancer and a warrior, Taigan a mysterious and ruthless agent seeking after people with rare and specific abilities, Zezili, a callous military leader serving Dorinah, one of the dominant powers in her world, and finally Anavha, Zezili's much-abused slave husband, who turns out to be more than he appears at first glance. These characters each have their own often conflicting wants, needs, and desires, and Hurley moves the reader's vantage point from one to another while weaving a coherent whole out of these many threads.

The story is built around the celestial bodies of this fantasy realm. The three bodies named Para, Sina, and Tira rise to ascendance and then decline on a regular basis. Certain gifted individuals are attuned to these patterns and can easily wield magical power when their stars are ascendant, but are much more limited when they have waned. The fourth star is Oma, which only appears once in a great while, on an apparently unpredictable schedule, and always heralds doom and destruction. It should come as a surprise to no one that as the book progresses, it turns out that Oma is due to ascend in the near future, and some are scrambling to identify and claim those who can wield Oma's power, as these individuals could shift the balance of power between nations, or even worlds. Along with Oma's impending rise, there are conflicts between worlds that seem destined to pit most of the characters featured in this book against the interests of their other selves in the adjacent "mirror" world.

The overarching cross-world conflict is one of the things that makes The Mirror Empire so interesting, because while each of the characters presented in the story have their own loyalties, they are all under threat. But they are all also embroiled in their own age-old animosities that set them at odds with one another. Each of the cultures presented in the book are radically different, and in many cases, despise one another. In Dorinah, the Dhai are held as slaves, and men are decidedly second class citizens who are unable to hold property or even travel without an escort. Dhai is a nation composed of former slaves who fled from Dorinah and settled in the most inhospitable region of the continent, leading to a deeply religious, very decentralized society in which personal autonomy is paramount, everyone recognizes five different genders, marriages seem to be happily polyamorous, and the inhabitants engage in ritual cannibalism of their departed relations. In Saiduan, the nation is ruled by a patriarch and has a bloody and seemingly almost arbitrary method of determining who holds that post, and while they recognize three genders, gender roles seem to be much more like what we would regard as being conventional, but same sex coupling appears to be regarded as simply an ordinary and accepted part of life. These descriptions only scratch the surface of the complex world-building that is found in this book, as each of these decidedly alien cultures is fleshed out in great detail, presenting them in interesting and unusual ways.

But the cultures are not the only alien things about this book. The world in which they live is a feat of incredible imagination filled with deadly fauna and cavalry mounted on bears. Metal weapons are considered inferior armament, as those who can do so wield branches infused with deadly power in battle. Buildings made out of "mere" stone are also considered to be second rate: Truly important structures are made from living plants, coaxed into place by magical means. There is a transportation system that involves people riding in a chrysalis. All of these elements emerge organically from the story, and are used in such a way as to inform the reader not only of the nature of the world, but also the nature of the inhabitants that live within it. For example, when the reader is informed that the Dorinah burn away the vegetation alongside their roads, it provides information about how the Dorinah deal with the natural world around them, and how that contrasts with the attitudes of the neighboring Dhai. Hurley has created a truly unusual world, and used the elements of that world to help convey culture and character to the reader: Quite simply, the environmental storytelling in The Mirror Empire is nothing short of brilliant.

Each of the nations depicted in the story eyes the other with paranoia and suspicion, and this doesn't go away even when Saiduan is in desperate straits after being partially overrun by mysterious invaders, or when Dhai discovers that some of their own people have been replaced by hostile doppelgangers. The true tragedy of the story emerges due to the fact that the reader is able to follow multiple characters and put the pieces of the puzzle together long before they are able to, unraveling at least some portion of the invader's plans without even having to have those plans spelled out in the narrative. When the powers that control Saiduan turn on scholarly emissaries from Dhai over a minor and essentially inconsequential slight, the reader knows that this will likely have the effect of dooming the entire Saiduan nation. When Zezili is tasked with and undertakes a genocidal mission, the reader understands the devastating import of what she is doing long before she does. And so on. Not only is each individual story line well-constructed and interesting on its own, taken together they all add up to a compelling larger whole.

The Mirror Empire is an excellent beginning to what promises to be a brutal and beautiful series. From the intricate politics, to the alien landscape, to the complex cultures, to the fully realized characters both large and small who dwell in its pages, this book is absolutely brilliant. Hurley even manages to avoid the problem so many first novels in a series face by giving the book an ending that wraps up several plot points in a satisfying manner while also leaving the door open to future installments. Filled with a healthy helping of political intrigue, seasoned with some brilliant world-building, and populated by a collection of well-drawn characters, this novel delivers on all fronts.

Subsequent book in the series: Empire Ascendant

2015 Locus Award Nominees

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  1. I love the haiku you've created. I think this book might be out of my league but so glad you enjoyed it.

    1. @fredamans: Thank you. I write a haiku for every novel, movie, or television episode I review. There's no real specific reason why, it is just something I started doing a while back and keep doing because it is fun.