Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley
I thought Kameron Hurley’s first book in her WORLDBREAKER SAGA, The Mirror Empire, was a richly imagined, ambitious novel that landed on the positive side of the ledger even if its flaws gave the book’s strengths a run for their money. Unfortunately, the flaws do a bit more than that in the sequel, Empire Ascendant, leading to an overall weaker second effort.
The Worldbreaker setting is a multi-verse with parallel worlds that, over time, shift relative to the others and with “ascendant” and “descendant” satellites that serve as sources of magical power for select people (known as “jistas”) sensitive to a particular one. One of those worlds, facing its destruction, is in the midst of invading another, with the complication that your “double” in the world you’re trying to cross over to must be dead or you’re stuck in your own world. Empire Ascendant picks up where The Mirror Empire left off and continues to focus on the invasion and the resistance, spanning a wide geography, lots of time, and a veritable host of characters, including, but not limited to:
- Lilia: a young girl, omajista, and one of the leaders of the Dhai resistance against the invaders, the Tai Mora
- Ahkio: Kai (leader) of the Dhai who seeks to find a way to resist without losing the Dhai’s principle pacifism
- Nasaka: Ahkio’s aunt and one who has her own vision for the Dhai
- Rohinmey (Rho) a young Dhai taken prisoner and put to translating old Dhai texts
- Taigan: a Saiduan assassin/magic-user
- Zezili: a mixed-race Dorninthian general tasked by her Empress to uncover a secret weapon in hidden in the country of Tordin
- Saradyn Lind: king trying to unite the fractious country of Tordin
- Maralah: A Saiduan general trying to hold back the Tai Mora
As mentioned, this is not an exhaustive list, and herein lies one of the problems. There are so many characters that on the most basic level, it’s simply hard to keep track of who is who, and several are absent for overly lengthy periods of time. A useful, I’d even say necessary, glossary is included, but flipping back does interrupt the reading experience. The sheer number also dilutes the vividness of the characters and the emotional impact of what happens to them, spreading the reader’s connection to each a bit thin, as well as making it difficult to recall motivations or who knows what truths, an especially important point in a series filled with so many betrayals, side-shifting, and lack of communicating.
This lack of clarity was a pervasive problem for me in Empire Ascendant across a wide scale, from sentence level to the big picture. Setting was not always clear, though a map is provided to assist the reader. Time shifts were problematic, especially in conjunction with so many POV shifts. Character motivations and behaviors were also a bit murky. I never, for instance, ever really understood Ahkio’s passiveness/helplessness in dealing with strife among his followers. Worse, some plot points revolved around characters doing things that were just plain stupid — locking away dangerous folks in closets and not checking on them, walking around unguarded, leaving people behind in dangerous situations with people who would certainly want to kill them, killing or mistreating valuable human resources despite an alleged sense of urgency, etc. As with the characters, this was not an exhaustive list. More than a few times my notes began with, “Really?” and then continued on with my befuddlement at why someone would say or do something. Whether these moments grew more frequent or it was a cumulative effect, this aspect really began to mar the reading for me in the latter third of the novel.
Smaller complaints were several awkward sex scenes (either in the telling of the scene or its placement), an at-times unnecessary (or so it seemed to me) brutishness, an occasionally too self-conscious moment of dealing with gender tropes, and an unevenness of pace.
Many of Empire Ascendant’s strengths, meanwhile, carry over from its predecessor. The exploration and subversion of gender adds a welcome sense of depth when it doesn’t call too much attention to itself. The world, as mentioned above, is indeed richly imagined in both geography and life, though it would have been nice to have spent a bit more time in the descriptions/various settings so as to fully savor that richness. Characters are complex and Hurley isn’t afraid to not only put them into situations calling for tough, even ugly decisions, but to make some out-and-out unlikable. Though I did wish we’d had a bit more counter-balance to the nearly unremitting ugliness and the idea that to save oneself from atrocities one must perform atrocities. And I absolutely love the basic premise.
But despite these somewhat mixed strengths, the novel for me sank under the weight of its own attempted but not well-executed complexity — its abundance of characters and its intricacies of conspiracy and plots not always fully explained/justified — and was marred as well by its too-frequent reliance on characters making unintelligent or unbelievable decisions. I like what Hurley is trying to do in Empire Ascendant, but it felt a bit like an early draft that could have gone through a few more pass-throughs by the author in order to streamline plot and character, clarify motivations and actions, and catch those “idiot plot” moments. As it is, after a mostly positive but flawed first novel and a second novel whose weaknesses outweigh the strengths at its core, the third book will go a long way toward determining whether the WORLDBREAKER SAGA ends up worth the investment of time.