The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
Synopsis from GoodReads:
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.
WARNING FOR SPOILERS. Also, long review is long. You’ve been warned.
This book is a hard one for me to review because I went in not knowing a lot of what to expect and came out feeling like I wasn’t sure how I actually felt about what I had read.
The Mirror Empire delivered fantastically on one thing: the worlds. Both worlds that we saw (and we learn that there are many, many others, at least one of which I expect to become important in the sequel) were very well developed, their branching-off points made wonderful sense and I loved that it was the little differences – according to the characters – that made the biggest changes to the way the worlds developed. Both worlds have diverse nations and people – although I did notice certain things that seemed to stay the same throughout cultures, more on that below – and both worlds were clearly very well-developed in the author’s notes and that came across quite clearly in the story.
The magic system also deserves praise. There isn’t a lot of explanation of it, unfortunately, but it does appear to be internally consistent and it is an interesting twist on magic. The magic users in this world – jistas – draw on the power of one of four stars, dependent on something I’m not sure about (potentially which of those stars/satellites was ascendant when they were born?), which lets them do amazing things. Each star grants different powers, and watching the characters discuss what they could or could not do based on the ascendant star was fascinating.
Speaking of explanation or lack thereof, Hurley throws her readers into the deep end. There’s a glossary at the back of the book (something my sister, who read this book first, didn’t know about until after she finished) and some questions do get answered as you read further, but Hurley isn’t exactly leaping to shove details of various cultures down your throat. So patience is definitely a must, and try not to get too frustrated at the dribs and drabs of information that won’t always get expanded on.
My first major disappointment was the characters. Very few of them came across as sympathetic, most of them made poor choices – either because the plot demanded it or because they didn’t try to get all the information or because they are stupid/psychopathic/suicidally loyal/etc.
The four main characters are, I would argue, Lilia, Roh, Ahkio, and Zezili, at least according to the blurb on the back of the book. Lilia goes from rather sympathetic to a complete monster in the course of her journey, although I did appreciate where she ended up from a story perspective. I felt that Roh began as a stupid teenage boy and remained a stupid teenage boy, only with some trauma thrown at him. Ahkio started as a stupid teenage boy with a throne he never wanted and didn’t know how to handle and ended up actually managing to start growing into something that might one day be a decent ruler – jury’s still out. As for Zezili… she started as a completely unsympathetic monster but by the end I actually started to admire some of her choices.
So I guess the lesson here is that a lot of the sympathetic characters turned unsympathetic and vice versa. But I can’t say I loved any of the characters and I can’t say I have a favorite character or characters, which usually means I don’t like a book since I tend to read for characters. And it’s not about the gray areas – if you read this blog, you know that I love Malazan Book of the Fallen, which is all about gray characters. But I connect to those characters and love them dearly, and their decisions make sense for the world and the character. Here, a lot of characters seemed to be making decisions because they are selfish, and if you’re not careful, that comes across as unlikable. Which is exactly what happened here.
Further, there were too many view-points going on. This isn’t because I don’t like multi-pov stories, because I love them. It’s because Hurley couldn’t give me viewpoints that sounded and felt unique. We jumped around far too much for me to get accustomed to any one character, although that helped since she doesn’t put chapters from the same POV back to back, so I didn’t have to stick with characters I didn’t like for more than about 15 pages at a time. But that also didn’t help me develop any strong feelings for the characters themselves.
On the other hand, unreliable narrators. I love unreliable narrators. And characters lie to each other, to their allies and enemies, shift allegiances, etc. I love that, and I love seeing two characters’ view of the same event because that allows me to see who saw what happened in different ways. So kudos to Hurley for that.
Now I’d like to talk a bit about what other reviewers have called the ‘shock value’ portions of the story. Trigger warning for the following paragraphs, read at your own caution if mere mention of triggering topics bothers you. If you want to skip to the end, look for the @ sign.
Okay. So. Rape – mostly women on men. Cannibalism – a couple of semi-graphic scenes worth, and some of it is ritualized. Slavery – which includes rape and also ritualistic bodily mutilation. Incest. The reversal of stereotypical female and male roles across multiple cultures in this world (women are in charge in at least two of the cultures and in one of those men are nothing but pretty ornaments meant to continue the species and are supposed to behave as stereotypical females – emotional, non-violent, desperately trying to keep the woman/women who is married to, looks after, or own(s) them satisfied, etc.). The gender identity and sexual orientations throughout the book’s cultures.
Three out of four of our main characters are involved in at least one of the above. The fourth has her own problems, but we won’t go into those here.
Now, I didn’t mind the rape, because I’m so used to that being used as a device in fantasy novels. Maybe I shouldn’t be, but pretty much every fantasy novel I’ve read has involved rape (thankfully I can’t say all), although usually it was male-on-female or male-on-male. Not always, but usually. Does that make the female-on-male (and some implied male-on-male) rape okay in this book? Absolutely not. But I didn’t see it as shock value, I saw it as standard (epic) fantasy fare.
The slavery goes the same way as the rape for me, mostly because, again, there’s usually some sort of slavery or serfdom or indentured servitude in epic fantasy novels. The addition of ritual body mutilation to mark someone as a slave was different, but not super upsetting, maybe because none of the viewpoint characters went through the mutilation or thought much about it.
The cannibalism was definitely shocking, especially because I wasn’t expecting it (I thought it was just a slur or propaganda, and then I got to the first scene with it). Do I think it was added for shock value? No. I think it was added as an integral part of making the cannibalistic culture more interesting – apart from the ritualized cannibalism of dead relatives, they are strictly vegetarian, an interesting twist. So, while I found it shocking, I actually liked the visceral feel I got from the scenes that included it.
Hurley’s decision to play with gender roles and the interesting way she played with sexual orientation and gender identity fits together for me, so I’m going to talk about those together. (and no, I haven’t forgotten about the incest – that’s coming last since it ties into the below discussion)
First, gender identity. In some cultures, it’s a choice while in others it’s determined by others and only slightly based on your anatomy or so it appears. After all, one of the characters from the second kind of culture is called the equivalent of gender neutral or gender-less yet is described as having breasts, although another character from their culture implies that a gender neutral person is actually a hermaphrodite. Although given that this comes from a character whose body changes gender on them, I’m taking that with a grain of salt.
Second, sexual orientation. Almost every character is depicted as bisexual and many of them are poly-amorous and at least one culture is polygamist with multiple husbands and wives often marrying each other, so you can have siblings who don’t share a drop of blood with you. Now, I like the exploration of polygamy in this respect, and I wish there had been more of an exploration of blood siblings and non-blood siblings and how these families actually work, but because our main characters from this culture were mostly separated from their families for various reasons, we didn’t get to really see this aspect. While I liked the polygamy, the bisexuality kept throwing me. Because it’s not as prevalent in the wider population here on Earth as it is in Hurley’s world. But, well, she’s not writing about Earth. She’s writing about people who appear to be human, yes, but they’re not Earth humans, so things can and are different there. So while it threw me a bit, it didn’t bother me.
(For the record, at least one character is canonically gay, although it seems he, too, is at least a little bit bi since he can get it up with women, but he does definitely prefer men. And I think Zezili, at least, is completely straight, but it’s not a good idea to assume anything with this book considering the writing style)
Finally, the reversal of gender stereotypes. This was most noticeable with the country of Dorinah where women are rude and violent and in charge and men are meek and passive and don’t always live to adulthood (if they’re not pretty or they show violent tendencies or what have you). It’s an interesting commentary, seeing women as men and men as women, and it’s certainly different from a lot of other books out there. Again, I didn’t mind this. But I didn’t love it, and it didn’t really do anything for me. I’m all for more matriarchal societies in fiction, but if you’re just going to change the genders and call it good, I have to wonder whether you just did it for shock value or if you’re actually going somewhere with it. I will say, however, that considering the Dorinah empress and what’s been revealed of her family and origin, it makes sense that women would be in charge in her territory. I just don’t know that the way they’re in charge works for me or makes sense within the greater context. Hopefully, a later book in the series will clear that up in some way.
Now let me tackle the issue of incest. A pair of brothers marry the same woman. A pair of cousins are constant lovers, although others share their bed (orgies galore, which isn’t true of all poly-amorous people here in our own world, and probably isn’t true of all polygamist cultures here in our own world). Etc. Some people might not have noticed that and some might call it ‘shock value’. I thought it made sense. Only one culture practices it (the polygamist culture) and considering the strong value they place on family, clan ties, and clan alliances, it actually makes a surprising amount of sense. Besides, there is a question of degree of incest. After all, they might be brothers, but do they share one parent, let alone two? In the case of the brothers I mentioned above, I believe they are half-siblings. But we don’t know if they have sexual congress with each other.
(I don’t remember which psychologist/sociologist theorized this, but I know there is one who claimed that children raised together from before the age of either five or seven won’t ever see each other sexually, so I suppose that, too, might be a consideration. If anyone remembers more about this theory, please let me know in the comments!)
So, overall, I didn’t have any major issues with the ‘shock value’ content. Some of it I even liked. Although the rape scenes definitely had me rolling my eyes and going, ‘oh, joy, more rape in my fantasy.’
Overall, I’m still not sure what I make of this book. It gave me a lot to say (this is definitely my longest review to date) and a lot of conflicting feelings, but I do feel as if there were a lot of issues I had with it and the writing wasn’t the best.
Final score: 3.5 out of 5 stars. I’m not going to go out and buy the second book today, but I will eventually read it. Probably through the library. When it comes to recommending it, however, I can only say it depends. On what content you’re willing to ignore (or might like), on how much grey and selfishness you can tolerate in your characters, and on what kind of fantasy you like. If you like A Song of Ice and Fire or Malazan Book of the Fallen, you might like this book. Or you might hate it. But the feel reminded me of those two epic fantasy series.
Read responsibly, people. And if you’ve read The Mirror Empire, let me know what you thought of it.