Fantasy Review: ‘The Mirror Empire’ by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror Empire‘What one woman believes is evil, another thinks is for the greater good of her country.’

Nothing about this quote should stand out on its own, a fairly typical sentiment that tries to seem profound but really says nothing at all. A quote very much like it has a good chance of being found in most books with a defined protagonist. So why would it be pulled from a book to start a review? As always it is all about context; in this case two men having a very general conversation. See it?

‘What one woman believes is evil, another thinks is for the greater good of her country.’

There it is, such a simple change from the societal norm. A hundred times a reader will see a quote like this, and ninety nine times years of convention have set the default gendered pronoun. But there is nothing lazily done in The Mirror Empire. If women hold a dominating place in a world it would follow that the language should reflect that. Little details matter, and Hurley stuck to them.

The Mirror Empire will make your head hurt in a very good way. A nasty little puzzle that takes days to solve, the world slowly comes together to give the reader a fuller picture. Layers upon layers are there to dig through. And when you think it is sorted out expect to have your mental map redrawn again. Entire alternative dimensions have to be taken into account here. Typically when people speak of steep learning curves in fantasy it is because a lot of names are thrown their way. The steep curve in this book tosses in cultural conventions that require a completely different thought process with each character that is followed. Fear not though, at times the characters are fighting this learning curve right along with the reader.

It isn’t just gender getting a giant convention mix-up, though it is often in the mix. A few fellow cis male readers will no doubt squirm at times while reading the plight of the abused husband. Three genders appear to be the minimum within the various societies; at time up to five are present. Race is a spark for conflict as well, confused by the different roles each have within their own world. Even cultural taboo’s that are seemingly universal are taken to task, though I will leave a few surprises on that front for other eager readers. Something that made me laugh though, in this world where almost anything can happen, being called a sheep fucker is still an insult. So go ahead and use that if you need an anchor into this reality while reading.

Mental gymnastics aside there is a wonderful fantasy story here; a mix of old familiar tropes and unexpected turns. A world with carnivorous, mobile flora doesn’t change the political ambitions of the people living in it.  Rulers rise, war is waged, magic is felt. The rising of a dark moon is giving way to magic more powerful (or perhaps easier to use) than the magic provided by waning moons. Eventually the various characters roles began to come together to provide a complete picture. From the young girl seemingly raised by her enemies to the war hardened general sent out to commit atrocities by her queen, no one’s role is apparent from the start but all clear up as the layers are unraveled.

At its best this novel is as good as anything I have read this year. Expect to hear ambitious a lot; I couldn’t imagine the mental and physical mapping it would take to hold all these pieces together but hold together they do. This book deals with gendered expectations on every page yet could be read for the story alone; different conventions and expectations are ingrained into the societies portrayed so naturally that they shouldn’t even raise a brow. The world is alive, the world is unique, and the world is actually built rather than borrowed.

At its worst, and be clear The Mirror Empire is still very good even at its worse, it starts to bog down in its world. Taken at face value everything works out fine. But much like time travel there are certain lines of questioning that can kill the plausibility of alternative dimensions. Accepting the facts as laid down is something a reader can either do or not; for me I started questioning the ‘why’ of certain situations and had to step away from the book to get back into a state of mind that allowed me to stick the story as presented.

I would expect people mostly have an idea of what to expect going in. Hurley’s world is brutal and dark. Even characters that nominally can be considered protagonist do very nasty, yet very human things to stay alive and reach their means. Physical action is present but sparse; the whole book is a slow build to a quasi-conclusion that leaves as many questions unanswered as not. Well worth a read, and probably well worth the hype train that is slowly building around it.

4 Stars

Review copy received free from publisher.

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