The Mirror Empire (Worldbreaker Saga #1) by Kameron Hurley
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release date: August 26 2014
Source: ARC from publisher
The nitty-gritty: A fabulous and fantastical world, a dense and complex plot, female characters that steal the show, but ultimately a fractured story that left me dazed and confused.
When Lilia was four years old, her mother filled a shallow dish with Lilia’s blood and fed it to the boars that patrolled the thorn fence.
“Nothing can cross the thorn fence,” Lilia’s mother said as she poured the blood onto the hungry, gnarled fence. The boars on the other side licked up the blood. Lilia liked the boars’ yellow eyes and wrinkled, mucus-crusted snouts. They reminded her of hungry babies. The thorn fence kept out the semi-sentient walking trees and conscription gangs who sometimes climbed up from the churning bay that clung to the base of the cliffs. The cliffs and the fence should have protected them forever. Her mother was a blood witch, and never doubted her power. If you fed enough blood to a thing, her mother said, it would do all you asked.
We all know books are subjective. It’s rare to find that special snowflake that EVERYONE agrees is the Best Book Ever. Often, I tend to fall on the side of the masses when reading books like this. Usually the big trade reviewers—Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus Reviews—get it right for me: when they love something, I usually do too. So it’s frustrating to fall on the other side of the fence when a book just doesn’t click. Unfortunately, The Mirror Empire was one such book. The hype, the glowing reviews, the Hugo Awards—all these things spelled out a five-star book, but although the individual elements are truly unique and wonderful, they didn’t come together as smoothly as I would have liked.
It’s hard to even give you a synopsis of the plot, because I lost track of the individual plot threads more than once. But what’s basically happening is this: two worlds, very similar to each other but not, exist side by side. In one world, a star called Oma is about to rise, after being absent in the sky for hundreds of years. Oma’s rise portends tragedy and destruction, and so the people who live in this world want to find a way out, to get over to the “mirror world.” Thus begins a terrible war, and the two worlds begin to destroy each other.
Now this is a very simplistic description of a complicated plot which has many rules that hold the different societies together. There are magic rules: Some people are sensitive to the satellites that rise and fall in these worlds, and when their particular satellite is in orbit, that person can draw power from it. There are social rules: Women dominate in The Mirror Empire, and Hurley has done a great job of turning normal society on its head. And there are political rules: The death of the Kai means that her brother must take up the job, a job he doesn’t want at all.
One of the most interesting things about this book—and there are a bunch of them—is Hurley’s matriarchal society. We are introduced to a character named Zezili, an assassin who is commanded by the Empress of her world to begin systematically destroying the lower caste members of society. Apart from the fact that she willingly does this, she is also married to a man named Anavha, whom she uses as little more than a sex slave. Anavha stays home while his wife goes to war, pining for her while she’s gone. He is kept hidden away from Zezili when she is home, and is only brought to her when she needs him. My reaction to this set-up surprised me. Rather than cheering for the strong female character who doesn’t let men push her around, I felt sympathy toward Anavha, who became one of the most intriguing characters in the book for me. Zezili is also fond of raping and torturing her husband, and this respect I thought Hurley took the role reversal thing too far. Feminists may applaud this decision, but I was mostly left with a sick feeling in my stomach. After all, rape is rape, no matter who does it.
Other male characters were not nearly as interesting to me. Ahkio takes over his dead sister’s role as Kai, the leader of his society, but he isn’t respected at all, and he came across as quite weak. In another part of the world, Roh lives and works in the Temple of Oma, and his story starts out promising. But with so many story threads, I soon lost track of why I found him so interesting in the first place. Hurley was deliberate in the way she created her male characters to be weak and uninteresting. Even a man named Taigan, who seems powerful in the beginning, turns out to be, not just a man, but someone who can change his sex! So in the end, he turns out to be a powerful woman!
If you are squeamish, then The Mirror Empire probably shouldn’t be your next read. Being a horror fan, I can take a fair amount of graphic violence in books, but this story contains a never-ending stream of it. Everything from beheadings to disembowelments to limbs being hacked off was standard fare in The Mirror Empire, and not unusual for a book dealing with war. However, I wanted just a glimpse of something lighter and happier to balance it all out, but those moments rarely came.
There is no disputing the fact that the world-building is amazing. Hurley has intricately crafted a very complex world, with wonderful touches of imagination that I was drooling over. Poisonous sentient plants litter the landscape and are a danger to everyone. (Watch out, or you may be pulled into a bladder trap underground, where a plant’s poisons will start to dissolve your body!) Instead of riding horses, Hurley has her characters riding giant dogs and bears! And the bears have forked tongues! There is blood magic, which although horrifying, I actually loved, and the idea behind the mirror of the title and the way it ties into the two parallel worlds was fascinating.
I also loved her frank approach to sex and sexual relationships. In a society with more than two sexes, marriages often involve five or six people. There’s also no “sneaking around” in this world, because adults often have affairs with people they aren’t married too. It’s just an accepted part of society, and I found it refreshing.
It took me two weeks to finish The Mirror Empire, mostly because I kept putting it down. I actually picked up and read two other books during that time, which tells me that there just wasn’t enough to hold my interest. I wanted to love this book, and at times I did. But the constant back-and-forth between story lines was confusing, and the characters whose stories I really wanted to follow kept being interrupted by other less interesting ones. Kameron Hurley is a supremely talented writer, but this one just didn’t work for me.
(**Tammy’s note: After writing my review, I did have a brief correspondence with the publisher regarding changes that were made from the ARC version to the finished copy of the book. According to editor Caroline Lambe, “…the ARC is quite different.” Hurley also addresses the changes briefly on her website here. I was surprised to find out that the finished book contains not only a map that explains her world, but a glossary in the back! Neither of these appeared in the ARC (which is not uncommon), and having these tools available while I read the book would have helped me enormously. Although, I’m not sure whether they would have changed my option of the book or not.)
Thank you to Angry Robot for supplying a review copy. Quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may be different in the final version of the book.
Want more insight into Hurley’s method of world-building? Stop back here on Thursday for Kameron Hurley’s guest post, and a giveaway of the book!
You can find The Mirror Empire here: