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Sunday, August 17, 2014

GUEST REVIEW: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley (Reviewed by A. E. Marling)

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: In The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, an army from one dying world invades another. Legions of soldiers abound, and if you envision them as men marching with swords and tower shields, you’d be wrong. The legionnaires are women. That’s only the beginning of the expectations Kameron Hurley delights in defying in The Mirror Empire.

Fair-weather fantasy readers who prefer occasional frolics into kiddy-pools of wizardry should stay away. The Mirror Empire, Book I of the Worldbreaker Saga will lose them in a jungle of complexity, and they’ll be eaten alive by rattler trees. The novel will be released with a map and a glossary. Being an advanced-reader pioneer, I had neither. Veteran fantasist though I am, I was perpetually in the state of No I Swear We’re Not Lost, Dear. 

This epic features four main characters, each with their own constellation of minor characters who sometimes gain the point of view. The tale spans three nations in one world, with brief jaunts to its mirror world where the sky smolders a poisonous orange. Star magic can be mixed with blood to open portals between the worlds, but a person cannot cross unless her reflection has already died on the other side.

The Mirror Empire is aptly named. A chance difference in the history of the two lands caused a single race of people to become lords in one world and slaves in the other. Before the exodus of the lords from one dying land can begin, the way must be paved with genocide of the slaves. The order of mass execution strikes General Zezili as curious. She may be a sexist killer, but she has her standards.

The female sexism tickled me. After one man rebuffs her advances, Zezili shrugs it off as his problem. He had no sense of humor. She prefers men “take up as little space as possible,” though she is devoted to her husband and only hits him when he deserves it. The culture has none of the tenderness or innovative family structure that I expected from a matriarchy, but Kameron Hurley’s goal is to show women in their full breadth of human experience. She speaks at length on the topic on a recent episode of Podcastle, “We Have Always Fought.”

(Art by Grace Liu)

I loved the visuals in The Mirror Empire. Fireflies dance in lanterns. Warriors ride bears and not in any mundane way. These bears have forked tongues and cat eyes. Other travelers ride giant dogs. Magic users craft the air into gales with swirling sapphire shine. Blue bonsa blades and glowing everpine branches sprout from arms, ready for battle. Most of all, the plant life of the world is breathtaking, and not only because of its paralytic poisons. Bone trees trap creatures and extract their calcium. There are root hooks and creeping deathwart. People are executed in giant pitcher-plants. I would’ve liked the story to take me on an endlessly dangerous safari, but the plants are most often mentioned in passing. To those who live there, they are but part of the scenery.

Lilia uses that foliage to her advantage. She traps her travelling companion in a spine pit, which will slowly digest her and quickly poison her. The thing is, Gian had saved Lilia’s life. Gian said she wanted only to save the world. The two girls might’ve even become lovers, but Gian got in the way of Lilia’s oath to her mother. Lilia, an exile from her home world, betrays most everyone she meets. As a heroine, she kicks aside reader expectation with her mangled foot. I hated her, but, to be fair, I also hate male heroes who torture to achieve their goals. Sometimes, though, I can’t stop reading about them.

The Mirror Empire can captivate with its wordplay, especially its verbs. Candles “drooled” over the table. Eye shadow “licked the faces of the dancers.” Did you envision women dancers? Wrong again. They are men. One word choice did not enchant me: “satellites.” These god stars bestow all the world’s magic. Power wanes and ebbs over the years, decades, and centuries depending on which one shines brightest. They’re like comets, but since they’re called satellites, I always envisioned them as spiky bits of metal with blinking antenna.

Four satellites trail swaths of magic, and the gifted harness them to unleash gouts of fire, to command terror plants, to spin air into armor and bashing gusts. One of the greatest gifted, Maralah, wears a fireglass coat, and she wields a twisty awesome willowthorn sword that glows violet. The gifted aren’t supposed to use their magic to dominate the ungifted, which is hilarious prohibition. A gifted who draws her power from the satellite Oma would is called an omajista. There are three other satellites and as many other kinds of magic users. I was not certain if they had distinct powers because I could never tell them apart (without a glossary). The satellites all have similarly short names that end in –a.

The onslaught of names in The Mirror Empire threatened to overwhelm me. One main character says, “I’m going to bring the bodies to Garika. I’d like Ghrasia to escort me.” When I read those lines I realized a few things. First, I had no idea who either of those characters were. Or even if they were people. Neither was I likely to ever distinguish them because they shared so many of the same letters and sounds.

I was wrong on one front though. I did end up remembering Ghrasia, one of the allies of Ankio. A shepherd scholar, he’s yanked into a position of power. He only wanted to be one the husbands of a local woman. What a delightful twist---for the reader---to learn that she may never have loved him, may have always schemed to manipulate him. Ascending to command requires that he ceremonially eat the remains of the former ruler, his sister. The sensory description of the cannibalism would make G.R.R.M. proud. Wait, did I say the past ruler was his sister? Well, maybe she wasn’t, after all. The rebels who claim he’s an ineffectual usurper may be right. Even if everyone accepted him, he’d chafe in his role. He prefers the passive masculine pronoun. His culture has five different ones for gender. Another nation has three pronouns.

One character lives them all, morphing between genders. Taigan is an assassin spellcaster who may just be immortal. She doesn’t know. Taigan can regenerate from any injury but still feels the agony of being trapped in a spine plant---“Fuck you, Lilia!”---and falls sick like anyone else. She wishes for mortality every time the involuntary gender change wracks his body. Taigan isn’t quite a main character. I’ll keep the identity of the last one a secret.

CONCLUSION: This will be an incomplete review of The Mirror Empire because to fully analyze it would take nothing less than a college semester. Readers who want a sea-depth of immersion in their fantasy will delight in a new universe to explore. Now if you’ll excuse me, I hear the trees have started their summer migration. I’m putting on my safari hat and joining them. Don’t worry, I’ll mind the exploding-acid pods.

GUEST AUTHOR INFORMATION: A.E. Marling is a fantasy writer, dancer, law-abiding citizen, human being (in that order). Discover his fantasy-appreciation blog and follow him on Twitter, @AEMarling, or the kitty gets it.

NOTE: Brutal bear art courtesy of Grace Liu.


AE Marling said...

Within hours of this review posting, Kameron Hurley won a Hugo for Best Related Work for her essay We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative. You can listen to it on the above link on Podcastle or read it on A Dribble of Ink.

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