So I finally got to Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire, which has been hanging out on my Kindle for some time now. But with the sequel, Emperor Ascendant, due out in a few weeks, I figured it was time to pull it up. And I’m glad I did, since even if I had some issues, The Mirror Empire turned out to be a (mostly) engaging story set in a fascinating world filled with an intriguing crew of characters and cultures, most of which play with “traditional” gender roles.
The premise of the setting is a universe of parallel (or “mirror”) worlds that over time move closer to and farther from one another, with that distance affecting the ease of travel between worlds. The astronomical geography (akin to astrology, really) is also the basis of the novel’s magic system, as certain people known as “jistas” can use the satellites that orbit their planet to perform magic, their power waxing and waning with the satellites’ appearance in the sky. Now in ascendance is Oma, the dark star not seen for several millennia. Its prior arrival brought chaos and violence, and this time appears to be no different, as one race invades its counterpart in another world in an attempt to flee its own dying one.
The Mirror Empire is set in that invaded world, home to three lands (that we see). Siduan, ruled by the Patron, is facing the brunt of the invasion and losing badly, while it is unclear at the start just what, if anything, the other two lands even know about the otherworldly attack. Those two lands are Dhai, a small country settled by former slaves (also called Dhai) and ruled by the Kai; and Dorinah, the brutal empire that still runs on Dhai slaves, ruled by an Empress.
The world as presented is richly complex. People ride large bears and dogs, herds of dangerous walking trees roam the countryside while other plants are just as mobile and deadly, blades sprout from forearms, fortresses/holds are living organisms. Meanwhile, gender is fluid in some cultures, with one culture having three genders and another five (female passive, female assertive, male passive, male assertive, ungendered). And one of the main characters, Taigan, is even more different, in that he/she changes gender in cycles. Adding to the complexity are the family/kin relationships. For example, in Dhai one can have multiple spouses, each of whom brings his or her own kin connection.
In terms of characters, the main POVs include:
- Lilia: a young girl who is an omajista, someone who can draw on the power of the rising star Oma, though she does not realize this for some time. Lilia is seeking to come into her own power and avoid becoming a pawn in larger events.
- Ahkio: the new Kai of the Dhai people, who must also find his way into power, though in his case that power is political rather than magical, as he tries to deal with threats both internal and external.
- Rohinmey (Rho) a young Dhai novice who dreams of a life of glory and adventure.
- Taigan: a Saiduan assassin/magic-user.
- Zezili: a mixed-race Dorninthian general tasked by her Empress to exterminate all the Dhai in the slave camps.
This is not an exclusive list, and Hurley does a nice job offering a wide spectrum of views in terms of sides, personalities, genders, and ages. Each character has a singular voice. For instance, Rho’s youthfulness is distinguishable from Lillia’s, even if both fall into the somewhat familiar coming-of-age character type. My two favorites are Taigan and Zezili: the former for the sense of “apartness” the character feels and the latter because I feel she grows the most, or at least must rethink her place and prior beliefs the most. I also like that Hurley doesn’t feel the need to make her characters “likable.” When ordered to basically exterminate the Dhai, for example, Zezili has no real moral qualms; her concern is about the impact the genocide will have on her people’s economy and lifestyle. The cultures are just as rich as the individual characters, with a sense of both breadth and depth in their traditions, their mores, and their familial, racial and political structures.
Interestingly, the strengths of The Mirror Empire are sometimes also its weaknesses. The world is richly complex, but at times that enjoyably challenging complexity edges over into a lack of clarity. This is less of an issue with the just-as-complicated plotting, as the characters themselves are often at sea in terms of what is happening and why, so in this case any confusion felt by the reader simply, um, “mirrors” the same feelings by the characters. That said, readers can expect to be challenged by the shifting settings, the number of characters, the similarity of names, the intricacy of the who’s-on-whose-side questions, and the like. I don’t mind a challenge, but I do think the novel bogs down due to the intricate plotting and the number of POVs. Though the characters feel individual, we shift amongst them so much that I can’t say I truly felt much for any of them. Their plots might have engaged me, but the characters themselves less so. Some streamlining would have gone a long way toward a clearer, tighter, sharper, and more consistently compelling story. And, as has been my usual complaint lately, I’m pretty sure the book didn’t fully deserve its length.
The gender fluidity is a welcome bit of originality and outside-the-box thinking (something one expects to see more of in a genre such as fantasy/sci-fi), but sometimes seems a little too easily glossed over. The gender inversion is equally welcome, with gender roles often flipped, women being more powerful than the men. But I felt Hurley was hitting this point too hard in spots, waving the flag of “See?! See?!” rather than letting the inversion play through naturally. Zezili’s husband, for instance, is a painted doll left to molder at home (where he cuts himself) while his wife goes out a-soldiering. But he really pushes the edge of absurd caricature, and a near-rape scene feels wholly gratuitous. Now, I’m the first to agree that female characters are also presented as caricatures, and there’s no need to convince me that rape is far too often gratuitous, but I like those characters/scenes about as much as I liked these — that is to say, not at all — and if this was merely to make the point more clear, I’d say Hurley should have trusted her audience more. We didn’t need the hammer.
The Mirror Empire has more than its share of flaws, and I do wish it had pulled me in more than it did, and sooner (the last quarter really had me engaged pretty fully). But I’ll take a flawed work of intelligent ambition, one with layers of complexity and depth, filled with unique images and concepts, over a too-safe, easy-to-swallow, same-old-same-old fantasy. I look forward to the sequel and just hope the execution matches the ambition a bit more closely.