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Kameron Hurley is an author probably best known within the SFF community for her non-fiction essay "We Have Always Fought: Challenging the 'Women, Cattle and Slaves' Narrative" who won the Hugo for Best Related Work last year. The Mirror Empire, part one of the Worldbreaker Saga, is her fourth book, the beginning of a fantasy series following her debut trilogy, the science fictional Bel Dame Apocrypha. To anyone familiar with Hurley's previous work, whether fiction or non-fiction, the ambitious, detailed worldbuilding, the attention to complex gender politics, and the well-written, challenging female characters of The Mirror Empire will be well-known territory.
The Mirror Empire is a novel situated in the intersection of epic fantasy and grimdark that manages to bring the best out of both subgenres while simultaneously challenge the their most cliched, overwrought tropes. By now it's probably clear to readers of this blog that I prefer my reading to be of the feminist variety, and in my opinion, The Mirror Empire is an excellent example of what a nuanced take on gender politics can bring to the fantasy genre.
In The Mirror Empire, Hurley constructs worlds and cultures vastly different from ours and shows what actual effects these varied conditions –whether it's functional magic, matriarchal societal structures, the existence of parallel universes, or the complete eradication of heteronormativity – have on material bodies and how these things shape lived experiences and identities. It makes for an endlessly fascinating and, above all, fresh read. A recurring problem in a lot of fantasy fiction is how heavy it relies on old, tired tropes, and a feminist re-imagining of those tropes and the genre as a whole is of course not the complete solution to the problem, but it is, as Hurley clearly shows here, one viable option.
That is not to say that the strength of Hurley's worldbuilding simply lies in construction non-patriarchal societies, however. The world(s) she creates in this novel are imaginative, fun and, above all, impressive in scope. As the story begins, a dark star is on the rise in the sky above the kingdoms of Grania in the Western Raisa, bringing with it wide-reaching ramifications for not only the world of the Western Raisa, where the bulk of the novel takes place, but also for the previously unknown universes beyond its boundaries. The closer Oma gets to its ascendant position in the sky, the thinner those boundaries grows and when the star finally reaches its peak, worlds will collide.
Magic use in these worlds function in accordance with the pattern of certain stars in the sky and the power of magic workers wax and wane with the same. Oma has not been seen in the sky for centuries and most have even forgotten about its existence until now, but the consequences of it's rising will come to serve as a forceful reminder of its power and possibilities.
The story of the novel focuses on Ahio who is rudely snatched away from his easy, comfortable life to take his dead sister's place as leader for the Dhai people and has to battle gendered prejuice all the way; Zezili, one of the most skilled and ruthless generals in the service of the Emperess of Dorinah, who might finally have been handed the one mission she won't have the stomach to fully carry out; and Lilia, for whom Oma's ascent means finally having a chance at attempting to keep the promise she made her mother all those years ago. And across the sea in Saidan, a strange and almost unstoppable army is invading, seemingly from nowhere.
Above all, I would say that the strength of Hurley's writing is her ability to keep the story interesting and the reader guessing throughout the book. The unexpected is a constant element in the plot and the development of the characters of The Mirror Empire, and that's what really made me keep turning the pages, unable to put the book down. That and, as I've said, the feminist aspects of the story. I keep coming back to that whenever I talk about this book simply because while most of what Hurley does in The Mirror Empire are things I've encountered before, she often takes it further than what I'm used to seeing.
Take for the example the role-reversal – there are several characters in the book, male as well as female, that have been cast in gender-reversed roles (the brutal, unrelenting Zezili and the relationship she has with her pretty and subdued husband Anavha is one example of many, but perhaps the most obvious) and this is nothing new, but what I like about how it's done here is that it doesn't shy away from truly taking the reversal, as well as its implications, seriously, like many such attempt do. Zezili and Anavha, and all other characters in the novel, are truly products of the society and the circumstances in which they live and neither of them mask any kind of 'true' gendered essence conformant with our ideas of what femininity and masculinity is supposed to be behind their behavior or identities. This is exactly where too many attempts at gendered role-reversal or characters set in non-patriarchal societies ultimately fail, in my opinion, and I'm glad to see that Hurley manages to avoid falling into that particular trap.
One issue Hurley does fail to tackle, however, is that of pronouns. Several of the societies in the novel gender bodies in a non-binary fashion – Dhai distinguishes between five genders, Saidan three – but for the most part, Hurley chooses to simply use binary gender pronouns. Writing about alien worlds that organize gender in a way that the English language is not suited to describe can naturally be tricky, but by opting to simply use male and female pronouns, our binary way of structuring gender that's supposed to hold no bearing in Dhai is reinforced rather than challenged.
With that said, The Mirror Empire is, all put together, a wonderful fantasy novel. I've spent the bulk of this review discussing its feminist themes but that's really only one of the things that makes this book so great. To name a few examples, Hurley approaches her often gloomy tale with a delightful kind of black humour and also has a particular knack for writing good, fast-paced action sequences that lack that awkward feel such scenes can often have in writing. The second book in the trilogy, The Empire Ascendant, will be out in October this year and I'm already awaiting it impatiently.