Review: Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Fantasy fiction.

You just bent your knees a little, didn’t you? Instinctively bracing for the weight of a couple of thousand pages, spread across a dozen volumes. Endless  description, constant character shifts and a never ending parade of exposition surely await you. There will be a prologue, maybe more than one. You will find out more than you ever wanted to about the food the characters are eating.

There will be a map.

None of this is bad, but all of it is work. So, you bend your knees and you brace for impact.

And that’s when Mirror Empire kicks your legs out from under you.

The familiar structure of several characters in different locations and on different sides of a brewing war is used here but there’s far more urgency than you usually see from stories that use it. These attacks are secretive and have been going on for long before the book starts. As the attacks move from the background to the fore, we get flashes of another world through one of the lead characters’ memories, hints of a vast conspiracy from another. All of them are connected to these organized, brutal and apparently motiveless assaults. Something unprecedented is changing the world and Hurley’s characters do that thing all great characters, and real people, do. Hide from it as long as possible even as every choice is defined by that change. The attacks are the start of a war but that war is itself just the start of something much larger.

This scope allows author Kameron Hurley to explore the numerous cultures in the book. This, if anywhere, is where she throws you in at the deep end. One culture has five genders, another has three and all of them approach daily life in ways that take around fifty pages to get into. But once you do, you see just how far down Hurley has built this world and just how elegantly designed it is. There’s no wasted space. Each idea is explored from multiple angles and perspectives and in doing so, each idea pushes the individual and main plots forward at ever increasing speed.

Hurley’s magic system is a perfect example. There are different schools of magic tied to whichever of the planetary moons is in ascendance. The status and power of the schools and their members are both dependent on the position of their moon. Jistas, as they’re called, can live and die without ever having their fully abilities manifest. Even more interesting, the celestial cycle becomes the political cycle as different viewpoints rise and fall with the Moons. That in turn places change as the one constant. A moon is always rising. A moon is always falling. Conflict is a function of this universe but on a timescale so large many individuals never live long enough to realize that.

That’s why the war is so terrifying. It’s an event that’s cresting in the lifetime of the characters, denying them the safety of dying before it becomes something to worry about. The war is immense, touches everyone and is only going to get larger. Those multiple viewpoints only make the scale of the conflict even more stark and horrifying. The world is changing, no one can do anything about all of it but everyone can do something. The book’s narrative becomes almost fractal as a result; individual character choices influence individual plots that in turn alter global events.

That’s why the ending works so brilliantly. There’s the usual huge action sequence certainly but the book doesn’t end there. Instead, the final thing we read is a single moment of desperate, cobbled together theatre. It’s the perfect meeting of two characters, a moment of humanity snatched from the jaws of global horror. Poignant, pragmatic and brave it’s a perfect closing note.

This willingness to focus on character choice over massive plot beat pays off again and again and ensures each character’s plot feels intensely personal even as it’s having an impact on a vast scale. Ahkio’s new life of terrifying clerical chess gives us the broad strokes of the conflict while Lilia’s desperate quest for her mother shows us the effects of the war at ground level. Each character is in a unique position, each character is trying to gain control of their environment and each character makes horrible, believable mistakes.

That brings us to Zezili Hasaria, the monster at the heart of this book. Zezili is a magnificent, Shakespearean villain. A Captain General of Dorinah she’s at the head of a legion of troops ordered to commit genocide. She balks, not at the work but the lack of reasoning. Zezili is monstrous; an abusive spouse, a brutally efficient warrior and a woman who enjoys being paid to kill others.

But she’s not an idiot.

So when she’s handed nonsensical, inefficient orders, that bothers her and the moment it does, her intelligence becomes the single chink in her armour. Zezili’s quest becomes one of emotional awakening as well as factual discovery and it changes her in ways she’s not ready for. There’s no redemption here, for anyone, but there’s awareness and in wartime that’s often all you can hope for. It’s certainly more than Zezili’s expecting and seeing her adjust to her new world and her new worldview is a highlight of the book. You will never, once, be sympathetic towards her but you’ll care desperately what happens to her. A  brilliant, instinctive soldier adrift on a sea of ethics and vengeance. Whoever stands in her way better have their moon in ascendance.

 

Mirror Empire is an extraordinary novel. The scale and invention here makes it essential reading but the characters make it remarkable. None of them are heroes and none of them have the comforting sense of having read the book they’re in. They’re all flawed, terrified people doing what they can to survive. Seeing them struggle even as the stakes are raised makes for a reading experience as packed as it is tense. Book 2 can’t get here fast enough.

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