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.
Before I launch into my review, just let me say that I love that cover. Richard Anderson has done some amazing art recently, and this one is no exception. Chillingly beautiful.
Books that I rate with four stars tend to fall into two categories. The first is books that were not spectacular in any way, simply enjoyable, straightforward, decently well written books that didn’t do anything wrong. These aren’t books that I’ll get excited about. They’re decent books, something I’d only occasionally recommend that other people pick up and read.
And then there’s the second kind: Those books that were very, very impressive, which blew me away in many ways, but had what I felt were a few fundamental flaws that kept them from being truly awesome. Because I feel that both types represent good books that are recommendable and enjoyable, I put them both in the four star category—none of them are bad enough to warrant only a three-star rating, but they’re not good enough to warrant a five-star rating either. Unfortunately, they also don’t necessarily fit well with each-other.
For examples of books I’ve read and reviewed in the past, Ancillary Justice falls into the first category, while Elantris is firmly in the second. Ancillary Justice has an interesting set-up, but a fairly slow plot and only a handful of really cool moments. Nothing that gets me incredibly excited. Elantris has a few characterization issues, and the plot feels a little slow, but the ending is a succession of gut-punch mind blowing moments that leave you in awe. They both fell into the four-star category for me.
The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley does too, and it falls firmly into the second category. I loved this book, and it’s one that I wish I could give a five-star review to. (Perhaps that’s the distinction? The first category is books that I felt deserved a four-star, the second category is books I felt should get five, but couldn’t quite bring myself to give it to them.)
The Mirror Empire is one of the few books I’ve ever read that can truly rival Sanderson for its world-building awesomeness. The world is full of brilliant ideas, many of which I’ve never seen done before. In most fantasy stories, default mounts are typically horses or the equivalent creature, occasionally magical. You’ll often see dragons used as well. But Hurley has placed her characters on quite a variety of dogs and bears. Yes, you read that right, her characters travel around and charge into battle on the backs of massive bears—something I’ve only ever seen done in His Dark Materials, and it’s totally awesome.
Her warriors also wield a variety of tree based weapons, some of which retract into their bodies. These are not your traditional fantasy swords, though they often function much the same way. There’s sentient trees lurking around, and an unhealthy helping of blood magic, too. The central conceit of the novel, which I won’t give away here, is one that I’ve seen done before, but never this well. The world-building is incredibly creative and, sometimes, brutal. I love it.
And unlike most authors, Hurley doesn’t restrict her world-building to just the physical aspects of the world. The cultures we encounter in Mirror Empire are so creatively and strangely built that I guarantee that you haven’t seen anything like them before. Ever. Her ideas of societal roles and positions are interesting, but her treatment of genders and gender roles is very unique. I lost count of exactly how many genders there are, but I’m pretty sure that there was a culture with our two, a culture with three, and another with at least five. They all make sense, and there are characters who are each of them. And they are not token characters, either. They inhabit several of the main roles of the book, and there’s one (viewpoint) character whose physical sex changes several times through the book, and who does not fit into any of the diverse boxes that Hurley has built—an interesting take on the issues that society faces today. The roles are, I believe, meant to be a social commentary in part, but they’re far more than that. They are ingrained and built into the culture, and they play pivotal roles in the novel. Hurley knew what she was doing when she built these cultures, and it shows.
And the book doesn’t allow itself to be distracted by them, either. The plot of the novel—which I can’t say much about without spoiling things, drives constantly forward. The pacing never lets up, though the many POVs and occasional rapid switches gave me whiplash at some points. The ending is properly climactic, bringing together several of the character’s threads, and taking all of them in new and interesting directions. It also made the world seem much bigger than I had realized at first, and I’m really excited for the next entry in the trilogy, Empire Ascendant.
While the plot itself was always interesting, the changes and confusion I experienced through the novel—especially in remembering who all of the widespread (across 2 continents) characters were—was one of my main complaints about it. The whole novel feels rough and powerful, like a train that Hurley barely has control over. I think I would have enjoyed it more if the final product had been a little more polished and smooth. Perhaps this is because in epic fantasy, I’m used to the characters starting out in a single place, so that the reader has time to get to know them before they’re scattered as widely as they are here.
But don’t let that deter you! The Mirror Empire is excellent, and it’s the first in the trilogy. I hope that the second novel, with hopefully many of the confusing world elements already explained, will flow more smoothly, and really reach all of its potential.
I’m already predicting nominations and awards for The Mirror Empire next year, though probably not as many as Ancillary Justice won this year. I’m not sure where exactly it’ll land yet, but it’s definitely in my top five novels of the year. I reluctantly give it four of five stars, and wish I could do more. If you’re hungering for really awesome world-building, damaged, unique, and distinctive characters, and you’re willing to hang on for the ride, I would highly recommend that you pick up The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley. I know that I’m heading out to find myself copies of her other books while I eagerly await Empire Ascendant.