Kameron Hurley once again draws us into her world(s), I should say, rips us across the seam into her world of lush, dangerous vegetation, world domination for survival, schemes and counter-schemes. With Empire Ascendant, releasing tomorrow, October 6th, Ms. Hurley’s continues her gripping tale of the epic Worldbreaker series with all of the fighting for survival, cultural preservation and personal relationships begun in The Mirror Empire. Her world-creation is second to none, her characters are complex and her deftly threaded storyline compelling. Ms. Hurley is clearly on the top of her craft hitting on all cylinders in writing this series. There are two challenges that remain to make all of this great writing into a great book (at least, for my preferences) – a major character who totally draws me into caring deeply about him or her (or hir, about which more later) and the dark, violent and treacherous nature of her world. Indeed, I will dive a little deeper into many of the same topics presented in my review of The Mirror Empire. Now I know lots of people love dark writing, and they will find their love met here; I prefer serious conflict without ever losing sight of the light. Where I would often avoid such a dark story with no character in whom I’m invested (despite an incredibly interesting and rich cast of characters), I continue to be drawn to this series primarily due to Ms. Hurley’s imaginative genius (plus excellent execution of said imagination).
[Full disclosure: I received an advanced copy from Netgallery for an honest review]
The very qualities that make this book (and series) so compelling are the very things that make it difficult. The characters are multi-dimensional people with complex motives and a bewildering set of capabilities and goals. They are much like us except on steroids. Like us, none are perfect or perfectly execute on their desires. They often surprise us and, occasionally, even themselves. There are some who are mostly good, but even they are messed up. These same characteristics are the very ones which make it hard for me to invest in them. There are no heroes including candidates for the role of Lilia, Taigan or Ahkio.
There is conflict, the life-blood of a story. And there is blood, sweat, and tears. There is failure ripped from the jaws of success, then more failure. There is even occasional sacrifice. And there is death; death mounded up and with bucket loads of blood poured over it. There is vengeance and the reaping of what is sown. This is an inordinately violent, dark world of little trust and less value placed on human life. This is Darwinian survival of the fittest writ large across the cosmos. It is heartbreaking to witness even with no emotionally intimate connection with the characters. Part of this darkness is that this is her equivalent of The Empire Strikes Back; I’m just a little concerned that the Jedi may never return in this one, but I hold out hope.
I know that’s the cool thing these days. We love our post-apocalyptic worlds. We revel in our zombies and creatures of the night. Our own world has enough darkness in it for me, so this is darker than my preference.
Why do I press on in this series then? Kameron Hurley is a genius, that’s why. She has so many elements that mesh perfectly in her story. So many threads that are woven together driving you in further into the story. Everything works. Her people, politics and power-struggles all make sense. All of this is used to drive the narrative arc. Yes, I wish it was a more pleasant narrative, but I’ll take Ms. Hurley’s dark narrative over many a pleasant one despite my preferences. Reading her story is like watching a composer conduct a beautifully complex piece of modern orchestral music whilst controlling a laser light show, a chorus, a ballet troupe and a fireworks display all at once, all perfectly synchronizing and all telling the same tale in their various media. That is Ms. Hurley’s world and people. I simply read in awe.
The one choice-point she’s made in conveying this story that I find awkward is the way in which she references the Ataisa gender. It’s a neutral gender. I understand that she is trying to convey something that doesn’t exist for humans; it is other-worldly and there is no go language for it. Her us of ze (as a third person singular pronoun similar to he and she) and hir (equivalent of him/her for the neutral gender) draws attention to itself and is awkward. I have absolutely no clue how to do this better. There are no great choices, so this is a bit of nit, but there you are.
So, there are sick things that happen in the story. Man’s depravity is highlighted, underscored and paraded throughout the first two books of series. Some of you love this. I cannot help but be drawn in by her talent even though I don’t love the darkness displayed. If you enjoy the dark-side, you’re in for stellar delights. If you aren’t as interested, you may find this as compelling a read as I.