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I think Kameron Hurley has invented a new sub-genre: Epic Noir Fantasy. Surely others have written dark fantasy, but I think she is its no-holds-barred queen. She creates an incredibly lavish, but disturbing world to weave a dense, dark story filled complex characters, cultures, politics and manners. She has a mother’s sacrificial love juxtaposed to a cannibalistic ceremony for transitioning leaders; much of her landscape, like much of her story, has incredibly saturated and verdant life which is equally dangerous and poisonous. Politics and relations are slippery with multiple wives or husbands making family ties complicated. Some cultures are matriarchal where men are mere play things while others would not allow a women to rule. I’m not sure I’ve read anything quite like it. Gifted people have abilities which wax and wane with the ascendancy of their related stars is (there are four), but Oma is the most powerful and dark star. This is a seriously brilliant, complicated work that takes effort to read; the effort is worth it.

[Full disclosure: I received an advanced review copy of The Mirror Empire from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review]

Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley

When you start out on the journey Ms. Hurley sets before you, start when you’re at your freshest, possibly with a double espresso nearby and pay attention. You’re unceremoniously dumped in the midst of a village surrounded by woods teeming with deadly plants and semi-sentient walking trees. The village is is immediately attacked by warriors. Lilia is saved by her mother, a blood witch, by opening a portal to another world. And that’s just the first few pages. A whirlwind of internal political intrigue, mages who use the power of the stars, threats from other countries ensue, all with the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads in the form of Oma’s ascendancy. Oma is the harbinger of seemingly unpredictable disruptive change; Oma is the bringer of war.

It will take awhile to get your sea legs on this journey but it’s well worth it (as long as you can stomach the darkness of her world). I found that if I allowed myself to be more fully immersed with longer reading periods, it made the book easier to follow. It also became easier to follow as the book went on; even though complexities were added, they were done with consistent logic and were, typically, done incrementally. They made sense.

So I keep indicating that this is a challenging read (at least for the likes of me) but a rewarding one. What’s so rewarding about The Mirror Empire? Here are a few great aspects of the book:

  • Breathtaking world building: The cultures, characters, variety and comprehensive nature of Ms. Hurley’s world is nothing short of stunning. She provides beautiful, haunting descriptive detail of such an alien place lovingly unfolded to us throughout the narrative. I love that way that she embeds these incredible vistas and VSP (very scary plants) and cultural revelations as an organic part of the story.
  • Interesting and complex characters: Ms. Hurley shatters my literary rule that at least the protagonist and a couple main characters have to be likable to have us care about them. I’m not sure I really like any of the main characters. Even Lilia and Ahkio, while sympathetic characters, aren’t folks with whom I would like to while away my days. None of this matters. We’re totally invested in the characters and what happens to them (which is often not nice stuff). Also, as alien as her world is, like ours, it is a deeply fallen world with depravity writ large on its people and its places; indeed it is depravity on steroids.
  • Her writing is always subservient to and drives the story: With some exceptions, this isn’t going to be a book full of clever quotes. Ms. Hurley’s phrasing and overall “wordsmithing” does not draw attention to itself, but perfectly and carefully drives the story. Some fantasy writers fall into a trap of trying to sound formal or “olde” and clever especially when when rulers or warrior priests are involved. Mages drawing power from the stars are a particularly tempting target for florid dialog. Ms. Hurley will have none of that. This is not to say her writing simplistic or dumbed down; it is to say that Strunk and White would be proud. Before I move on, however, I do have to provide one quote that will likely be one of the more remembered phrases:

Because ruin so often came from the sky, borne by fickle satellites on erratic orbits, Shao Maralah Daonia did not think to look to the sky until it was too late.

  • Simply a brilliant, albeit dark, story: While there must be the dark side to any story, I tend to like my stories less dark than Ms. Hurley presents. This is a tribute to Ms. Hurley. Also, one reason it’s a bit more palatable in this story, besides being brilliant, is that interesting culture and “normal” relationships coincide with all the nasty stuff. Part of what makes this story so brilliant is how well she weaves all of the diverse plot lines together. I honestly don’t know how she managed to keep all of it together. Whatever organizational tool she used, I’m in. Alas, it was most likely sheer brain power.

What am I less fond of about the book? Our dear Thomas Hobbes’ characterization of life (during wartime) as nasty, brutish and short seems particularly apt for her world. To provide an analogy from another epic fantasy, this is like spending most of the story in Mordor and very little on the open, wind-blown fields of Rohan.

The Mirror Empire also spurred reflections, some of which are, in no particular order of importance:

1. Common grace:

Part of the challenge of this world is purely environmental. The poisonous flora (with some pretty rough fauna as well) reminds me of how well, comparatively speaking, we have it.  While there are poisonous plants, bugs and animals on earth, they’re a relatively small percentage of life. You would think that more aggressive flora, like in Ms. Hurley’s world, would survive as the fittest more readily. This brings to my mind the Christian notion of common grace. When thinking of grace, we normally equate this to the special grace Christ gives to his people by substituting Himself as payment for their sins and enabling them to have an unfettered relationship with God. Common grace, on the other hand, is the notion that God provides for those who are His people and those who are not. (This is not to deny depravity and sin in this world, effecting both people and their environment.) Here’s a summary of this idea:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45 ESV)

As challenging as our own world can be and as poor stewards of it that we are, it provides a much nicer place to be than it could be.

2. Evil as a main element of writing: While reading about evil may be cathartic, having it as a primary focus remains difficult, at least for me.

Life is challenging and provides plenty of pain even for those lives that are relatively good. Sometimes I question the sanity of immersing ourselves in dystopian, post-apocalyptic or otherwise evil laden worlds. Do I really need to add to my emotional roller-coaster? I still say yes, but increasingly I find that the time between diving into something dark grows longer.

3. Power is an equal opportunity corrupter: Lord Acton’s famous quote regarding the tendency of power to corrupt and absolute power to corrupt absolutely knows no bounds of gender.

In Ms. Hurley’s world we have male, female, neuter and the rare person who occasionally flips gender. Most interestingly, in a society where women utterly dominate, males are mistreated playthings whose job is to look good and do whatever his wife says. In other words, given the opportunity, women do just as poor as job as men in treating the opposite sex when in a position of power. The lyrics to “If I were a boy” ring true only because the person knows what it’s like to be mistreated. I don’t know women would mistreat men in the same way they’ve been mistreated (they would probably find new and different was to do so), but it certainly gave me pause for thought.

4. Broken love means broken lives

Our ability to love well seems to me to be a primary indicator for whether we can live well and have a reasonably well working moral compass. The flip side seems equally true: if we’re unable to love well, that brokenness permeates all of our life and our moral compass is shattered. In the story, we see this inability to love well from a number of people. Their ability to love is bent, broken off a true path. I’ll keep the examples generic to avoid spoilers. One such example is a mother who manipulates situations and sacrifices others for her ambitions for her son which don’t always align with his own ambitions or desires. Moreover, if her ambitions stand in conflict with his desires, it’s pretty clear her ambitions win. Another example is a woman from a matriarchal society who has a controlling, abusive relationship with her husband. He seems little more than a sex slave and her property, yet when he goes missing she risks her very life and under goes hardships to find him. Even though she is a hardened woman warrior, when she thought him lost “her chest hurt and her vision blurred.” What kind of messed up relationship is that? This is not the irritation of someone who has lost her plaything or property; this is the earnest distress of someone who, in her own warped way, loves him. These are broken and bent lives is a broken world.

If you like epic, grand scale fantasy that has a cohesive clever story with complex characters who have even more complex and every shifting relationships and either enjoy or at least can tolerate some dark elements (death, betrayal, filth, killing (on a grand scale) while heavy laden with adult themes), this is the book for you. I loved it; my wife would not. I am definitely looking forward to the continuation of the Worldbreaker Saga. This is also my first foray into Ms. Hurley’s writing and so will dive into her Bel Dame Apocryphal series when I’m ready to go a delve in the dark side again. I think I need to read some Winnie-the-Pooh in the meantime.

The Mirror Empire for Kindle @ Amazon