Let me explain.
The incestuous tribal peace-lovers. Otherwise known as Dhai. The majority of the main characters are Dhai, though much of the story happens elsewhere. The have big, polyamorous family structures, their wizards are sworn to pacifism, and they seem to be enslaved anywhere else not-Dhai. While seeming egalitarian, they practice hereditary rule and draconian rule enforcement.
The militaristic kill all men fascists. Otherwise known as Dorinah. Martial woman who fight and enslave for kicks and who happen to kill all the men they don’t need for breed/status-marriages, invoking their own version of Darwinism/(u)natural selection by killing off all but the smaller, pretty ones. I’m not sure what their wizards do. Act as deus ex machina maybe.
The empire that lives in the cold and acts like assholes for no clear reason (maybe they’re cold). Otherwise known as Saiduan. They’re very stern and cold (in demeanor!) and harsh, just like… the wintry land they inhabit. Their wizards are assassins.
Unlike the final version, the advance copy of this book is missing a map. For most of the novel, I was picturing these three countries as amorphous island blobs floating near each other. Turns out, this is not the case.
The good peoples above are busy being their own nationalistic-defined selves when Saiduan (cold-assholes) are invaded by mysterious enemies dropping out of rifts in the sky. Said enemies happen to look just like the Dhai (tribal-incest). Turns out there are other worlds, and in one world in particular, a few decisions made differently were all it took for the pacifism-loving Dhai to become terrible imperialistic conquerors.
Other worlds. Mirror worlds. Mirror Empires. The gates between worlds have rules associated with them; you cannot cross over to a world if your other-world-self still lives, and they are difficult to open. Indeed, they can snap shut and slice you right in half and this will not be the only instance you are reminded of The Wheel of Time series, even if you got bored halfway through it. Like 10 years ago.
This book moves quickly. It’s well paced. Every chapter is a contained moment of action that moves the plot along and sets up the next piece. While not essential in all works (I do love a slow burn), this is essential for The Mirror Empire, for reasons mentioned below in ‘The bad’. Much is communicated with few words and the tell-tale sluggishness and over description of most epic fantasy is absent. It’s almost baffling when a room or scene is described in detail — I’d scrutinize the wall texture for plot significance.
These traits are encapsulated in The Mirror Empire’s standout character, a Dorinah (KAM-fascists) general named Zezili. Zezili, in addition to being a spousal abuser and all-around curmudgeonly asshole, spends much of the book committing genocide on slave camps scattered across her country. Yet, you can’t help but want her to succeed.
(at halting the villains, not genocide)
She can get away with mass murder, because in The Mirror Empire, life is cheap. Murder, genocide, slavery are casually mentioned, rarely described. A character having mud and blood on her boots is an expository tell that a whole lot of people just died. While the numbers of people in any given scene are small, the amount that casually get offed is out-of-scale enormous. History is laden with genocide. There’s a disproportionate amount of slaves. Sometimes people are mentioned as dying offhand, and I’m not even sure what was around to kill them. It may be that this was supposed to point out the cheapness of life in the real world, the commonplace of genocide, how rote killing becomes when it’s all you know. But it doesn’t. Instead, it feels more like a Franz Kafka short where no one reacts as you’d expect them to. Murder is just totally fine in Mirrorempireland. Normal, even.
Despite the walking trees and killer plant life that suffuse the world, despite the mirror worlds and wacky magic, despite the avoidance of traditional-patriarchal-conservative structures, this still feels like just another fantasy world. Dhai has five genders but I have no idea what any of them mean — they seem pretty average fantasy-tribal-religious society. The cultures and people just don’t feel solid, or believable. They’re groups of traits.
This extends to the characters and language. You have reluctant man with small concerns and tragic past thrust into Leader of the People. Youth searching for a lost parent and coming of age (+superpowers). There’s a bunch of generic martial badasses. And while I’m utterly opposed to the thesis of Ursula LeGuin’s essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie — that fantasy requires some sort of mythic-grandiose language — it actually kind of applies here. The language, and especially the dialogue of The Mirror Empire is incredibly modern. Why are the people of this killer-tree, super magic, casual murder, pre-industrial, multivalent gender planet speaking like Americans in 2014?
P.S. Fiction and blog writers alike, I hate when you overuse the word ‘Well’ to start a sentence.
The wizards (and a refusal to adhere to a Serge Leone ascribed trichotomy)
In this world, some kind of moon-like satellite things rise and fall every few years. These satellites give the magic-users of the world their powers. It’s a pretty cool concept. Someone with their satellite in power in their early-mid teens may be a more confident youth and this will alter their life beyond just mastering powerful magic. And no doubt have a second effect once their power begins to wane. One place fantasy often fails is when you ask the question, ‘why don’t wizards rule the world?’ This books fails here too. The magic users are super powerful; they can heal almost anything, blow shit up en masse, etc. It’s not a major flaw but it’s there.
The actual magic system is weaving patterns and speaking litanies and the biggest conjuror of Wheel of Time memories. You have to grasp the magic source, maintain concentration etc. This wasn’t a negative. It made me nostalgic. I felt this often during The Mirror Empire and it is not merely because I’ve started reading more fantasy again after abstaining for years. Hurley conceived of this originally as a teenager and it feels like that. There are some magic assassins that have swords attached to their arms that glow and literally eat souls. Been there, wrote that, killed that World of Warcraft boss. In fact, I felt like I was in a video game often. Mass Effect in particular.
This review is all over the place. Sorry. Suffice to say: I liked it. I’ll read the next.
I requested this book from Netgalley as I’m a fan of Kameron Hurley’s blog. Then I failed to download it in the required time. The publisher hooked me up anyway. Thanks Angry Robot!