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The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror Empire: Worldbreaker Saga 1 - Kameron Hurley

This book made waves when first published, but it took me awhile to get around to reading it because it is brutal and alien and I have to be in the right mood for something like that.

The Mirror Empire will appeal most to those who like high-concept dark fantasy: there are parallel worlds, populated by different versions of the same people; there’s carnivorous plant life everywhere; there’s a large world with widely varying societies. The Dhai, the book’s primary culture, have group marriages, choose their own genders, and eat their dead as part of funeral rituals though they’re otherwise vegetarian. Meanwhile, the empire of Dorinah has a gender-reversed version of the stereotypical patriarchal fantasy culture (men are kept at home as ornamental husbands, unless they’re prostitutes, while the army is made up entirely of women). In one world the Dorinah are a powerful empire and keep those ethnic Dhai within their borders as slaves, but in another the Dhai were triumphant and are on the move, seeking to invade other worlds.

All that is interesting, and Hurley does not hold the reader’s hand, so you have to pay attention to figure out what’s going on, especially in the first part of the book. It’s nice to read a truly imaginative fantasy rather than another version using the same old familiar shortcuts. And it amuses me to see how uncomfortable some of the gender relations portrayed have made some male readers. Suck it up, guys, this is nothing compared to what female readers tolerate in most epic fantasy written by men. Two of the four most prominent point-of-view characters are male, neither is defined by his relationship to a woman (the book easily passes a reverse Bechdel test) and only one sexual assault by a woman against a man is portrayed. There are not any sexual assaults against women in the book, though otherwise it’s as violent and gory as any grimdark fantasy.

So I think those looking for unique and imaginative fantasy will enjoy this. As for the plot, it’s most interesting toward the beginning and end, but sags in the middle. In particular, the plotline dealing with Roh in the country of the Saiduan seemed like a distraction to me. But although the fighting-an-evil-invasion aspect of the plot is standard epic fantasy, in its details it is original and I was rarely able to guess what would happen next. The writing is simple and no one is likely to be delighted by Hurley’s turns of phrase, but the starkness of it suits the story. Although 500 pages long (plus a lengthy glossary at the end), fairly short chapters and a reasonable font and spacing mean the book moves quickly.

But the character development is the book's weakest aspect. Even the protagonists are mostly flat: what you see at the beginning is what you get, with the rest of the story adding little in terms of layers or nuance. Lilia, the first protagonist we meet, is your basic orphaned teen with magical powers she doesn’t understand. (She’s the book’s most sympathetic character, mostly just because she has asthma and a bad foot and these limitations humanize her; like everyone else in this brutal world, she’s quick to take desperate measures.) Akhio is your basic scholar thrust into a powerful position for which he’s unprepared, and Roh your basic teenage boy seeking adventure. Ghrasia the war-weary militia leader, Zezili the villain protagonist and killing machine, and Anavha the none-too-bright battered husband are not the gender you'd usually expect for such characters, but otherwise are flat and standard-issue. And those are the major characters; the many secondary and minor ones have no personality and few distinguishing characteristics, which makes keeping track of them a challenge.

I’m calling it a 3.5 because although usually a character-oriented reader, I’m curious enough about what happens next (there’s little resolution here) that I probably will read the second book. I have no hesitation about dropping a series after the first book if it doesn’t seem worth the time, so on some level the storytelling clearly worked for me.