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.

Sci-Fi Review: ‘God’s War’ by Kameron Hurley

God's War (Bel Dame Apocrypha, #1)Completely indescribable and apologetically dark, God’s War quickly became a favorite of mine when I read it several years back.  Recently, due to the magic of twitter, I learned my friends across the ocean are just now able to get their hands on it.  That little tidbit also reminded me that I have not read the concluding volume of this trilogy.  So I decided to remedy that this year; and in order to do so I knew I had to reread the first two.  As I read them pre-blog, I will give them a quick review as well.

Indescribable is what I said, but I can try.  Sci-fi in a way; there is bio engineering and ‘aliens,’ but it often reads like a fantasy.  Main character Nyx is a bounty hunter who slings a sword to bring in her bounty’s heads, carries a hidden arsenal of knives and poised needles, and her team includes a magician and a shape shifter.  And there are bugs.  Everywhere.  This is a planet over ran by them.  Wild bugs are dangerous enough but what the people of this world can do with them is fascinating.  Magic based around calling them, medicine based their unique benefits; even the cars are based around live bugs as fuel.  It is crazy but somehow it works.

Is it dark?  Oh hell yes.  It starts with Nyx killing a boy who ran from an age old holy war that has decimated the male population of two countries.  Quickly we see her betrayal; she is kicked out of the Bel Dame service (official bounty hunters) and after jail is forced to freelance work.  There are torture scenes, heavy drinking characters and lots of fighting over beliefs.  But there is also a lot of heart.  Nyx keeps a loyal team despite her many (many) issues.  And between her and her magician Rhys there is romantic tension so tight it could be played as an instrument.

There isn’t a character in Nyx’s team that I didn’t love by the end; even the ones I wanted to slap.  I love Nyx like family; the type of family I care for but really wouldn’t want to be around and ‘oh, my god, are they in the news again?’  I want to believe she is the good guy in all of this, but in a world of legalized bounties who can be sure?  There passages that let us know she is capable of doing dark work just like people I want to call bad.

If I have to criticize, and human nature says I must, even on reread I am unsure of a couple of plot points; I was a bit shaky on why or how some characters came back into play by the end.  The first time I read it I put it down on me, after all this is not a book that holds your hand.  You are dumped right in and  sink or swim in the details on your own.  But as I still don’t get it perhaps a bit more polish could have made it clearer.

That said, this book was just as good, if not better, on reread.

4 Stars.  On to ‘Infidel.’

Warning!  Do not read any further than this!  If you do you will probably be sorry.  Because you see, once it was in my head I had to work it out as far as I could, and, well you will see the pitiful result.

CUE MUSIC!!

Oh, my, god.  Becky, look at this book.

It is so, different. It looks like one of those grimdark guys dreams

But, you know, who understands those grimdark guys

They only read it because it has a crazy death count, ‘kay?

I mean, her sword, it is so big.

I can’t believe all the bugs, it’s like, out there, I mean –Gross.  Look!

It’s all so, whack.

*Cue bass line*

I like bug-punk and I cannot lie

You other bloggers can’t deny

That when Nyx walks in acting all ace and punches that gal in the face

It’s just, FUN

You love her cause she’s tough

‘and you notice that trunk was stuffed

With a dead body just a red herring

And a bounty you know she be sharing

Oh Hurley, this is how you do romance

Tension but never crass

Others tried to warn me

There’s just so much to this story.

Oh Rhys with smooth skin

You not much of a magician?

But needed, wanted

And so important to Nyx’s bounty team

The team is over their head

But the queen’s bounty will keep them fed

Oh my god this is so hard. Parody song writers, I tip my hat too you.  I give up.  And you can’t say I didn’t warn you.