The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past… while a world goes to war with itself.
In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin. As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress.
Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.
In the end, one world will rise – and many will perish.
I have to begin with a terrible admission. Initially (at least for the first fifty odd pages or so) The Mirror Empire had me regularly exclaiming “WWWWHHHHHHHAAAAAT!!!!” in a Moe Szyslak-esque fashion. I had little clue what was going on and I was beginning to think that this wasn’t the book for me. That said, I’m not a fan of not finishing novels. I’ve only done it twice in the last four years, so I knuckled down and persevered. In hindsight, I’m extremely glad that I did make that extra bit of effort. You see, every time I power up my e-reader, or crack open a new book, I’m on the look-out for that single split second of joy; that blissful moment when the story I’m reading finally makes sense. Sometimes it’s easy and I’m sold on a premise as soon as I’ve read the blurb on the back cover, other times it happens right there on page one, occasionally I even have to wait until the final paragraph. Reading The Mirror Empire provided a particularly marvellous example of this phenomena. One character mentions my favourite dairy product in an off-hand comment and suddenly WHAM, I got it. To say that this was unexpected may be the understatement of the year, if not the decade. Well played, recent Hugo award winning author, well played.
Religion, magic, mysticism and politics blend together in a swirling labyrinthine plot reminiscent of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Yes, I know that Dune is considered science fiction and The Mirror Empire will likely be labelled fantasy, but when it comes to categorisation in both instances I find the lines suitably blurred. The important thing to note is that each book effortlessly captures that same vast sense of scope. Hurley, like Herbert, has created a text that manages in one breath to be a huge awe-inspiring affair and then be vividly intimate in the next. The further you read, the more you realise just how mind-bogglingly massive the events unfolding before you are. By focusing on a relatively small group of key characters, you get to see how events are shaping nations and entire societies from the ground up.
The narrative also deftly explores the pivotal role that gender plays within the different civilisations, many of the attitudes and traditional tasks having been completely gender-swapped. Everything from group marriages, open relationships to the interpretation of personal space are examined. This element of the plot provides a host of perceptive moments. In particular, there is a character called Taigan whose journey offers unique insight into the differences and the similarities between genders.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a purely cerebral affair however; there is plenty of action to counterpoint all the Machiavellian scheming and social commentary. These more kinetic scenes allow the magic system that Hurley has created to take centre stage. Differing races and factions have powers based on whether specific satellites in the night sky are in ascendancy or not. The alignment of the planets give their wielder’s power an elemental feel and can be used in any number of different ways, offensively or defensively. I loved the idea of shields conjured directly from air and swords imbued with pure energy.
Yes, there is very little denying that this novel has a complex, ever-shifting plot. Hell, I’m probably even willing to admit that it could confuse should you let it. My advice? Pay very close attention to every single scene, lock yourself away from any potential distractions. This is the sort of writing that both demands and deserves that you pick up on every subtle, skilled nuance. Once you understand the rules everything suddenly clicks together and makes a wonderfully engrossing, if slightly skewed, sense. Don’t get me wrong, if you’ve read The Eloquent Page before, then you’ll know that there will always be a place in my heart for slightly trashy, pulpy no-brainer fiction, but the stories that really stay with me are the ones that exist somewhere far beyond that. The stories that challenge me to engage my brain cells and actually think are the ones I can still recall years later. The Mirror Empire falls squarely into this latter category. This is first novel by Kameron Hurley that I’ve read, my only regret is that it has taken me so long to become aware of this truly exceptional writer.
Wow! The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs last week and now this. It appears authors have targeted me directly and are trying to melt my brain with their brilliance. Damn them!
The Mirror Empire, the first book in the Worldbreaker Saga, is published by Angry Robot Books and will be available in the US and as an ebook from 26th August and in print in the UK from 4th September.