The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
Monday, June 22, 2015
I'm reviewing all ten of the finalists for this year's David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can see the list and my approach here, and vote in the Awards here.
The Mirror Empire (2014) is the new novel from many-award-winning novelist and essayist Kameron Hurley. The first in a series, The Mirror Empire is an epic that spans - quite literally - worlds.*
On a world rich with predatory vegetation, magic comes from the stars themselves. Each heavenly body comes complete with a package of powers. People born with a connection to a star (or, more rarely, stars), can be trained in their magic. But now a new - or very old - star is ascendent. Oma arrives every few thousand years, and with it, destruction. Every ascension of Oma is timed to coincide with the descent of the other stars, and, historically, a cataclysmic invasion.
As Oma rises, a handful of plots - some in place for centuries - come to fruition. Lilia is a young girl, born in a remote village. When invaders destroy her home, Lilia is cast through a portal to a different land, to be raised in a temple - a simple, innocuous kitchen drudge (as if). The Kai - the ruler of her people - dies under mysterious circumstances, and her brother, an untrained and ill-suited teacher named Ahkio, is called upon to take her place. Meanwhile, Roh, a student at Lilia's temple, is determined to be more than his destiny. He desperately throws himself into one scheme after another, keen to become a hero of some sort. The new Kai attaches him to a curious diplomatic mission, taken to a far-off - and not entirely friendly - kingdom.
Meanwhile, Taigan is on a search for an omajista, someone who can draw on the power of the rising star. And Zezili, the leading general in a neighbouring empire, is called upon by her Empress to begin a campaign of genocidal destruction.
Behind all these threads are the agents of a parallel world, one brought close by the ascension of Oma, and one that is much better prepared for the cosmic events to come. (Honestly, that's probably a spoiler, but what did you expect from a book called The Mirror Empire? Plus, it is in the Amazon blurb, so I'm not tagging it. Sorry.)
The Mirror Empire is a beast of a book, with the density of a neutron star. It comes complete with its own language, a new cosmology and ecology, a half-dozen societies and a magic system elaborate enough to border on the science fictional. A handful of POV characters and a theme of total relativism only add to the complexity, as the reader is dipped and dunked between narrators, perspectives, cultures and worlds.
That said, the core plot is: "inter-dimensional invasion a-comin', what are you going to do about it?". So let's skip straight to the criteria, so we can discuss the important stuff.
Is it fantastic? Yes. Hugely. Star-powered magic and colliding dimensions and ambulatory, carnivorous plants (they're mentioned a lot - The Mirror Empire is rightfully proud of its plants) and gigantic magic mirrors and WAR-BEARS and and and...
Is it entertaining? Yes. As well as being a neutron-star-dense beast, The Mirror Empire is sort of a... big rusty camper van. It takes a lot time for the engine to turn over and a longer time to get up to speed. But if you put with it for that long, you'll be comfortably settled in for a long journey. With a lot of momentum. Bring snacks. That said, there's a difference between 'engaged with the narrative' (yup) and 'enjoying where it takes you' (argh). But we'll get to that.
Is it immersive? Not so much, but I suspect that is by design. This is a really weird book, and whenever you start getting comfortable with how weird it is, you get slapped in the face with something even weirder. Blood magic, local ecology, incestuous cousins, ritual cannibalism... there's a lot in here that's off-putting, and there are very few points in the story where the reader isn't being pushed or challenged in some way. Constantly being challenged to extend your mind and understand new things: that's literature. Constantly being challenged to accept the horrifying as the norm: that's grimdark. And The Mirror Empire sits somewhere between the two... or, hell, maybe it does both. Either way, despite the copious amounts of detail, this isn't a world that suspends disbelief as much as it challenges your preconceptions. Everything is very precisely strange, and as soon as the reader is close to acclimatised, it scootches even stranger.
Is it emotionally engaging? No. I could not care less about any of the POV characters. Actually, to be completely frank, I did care - mostly because they were all aggressively unlikeable. Zezili is, of course, a genocidal serial killer. Lilia is impossibly stupid, with her one (rather unconvincing) motivation of 'find mom' leading her to make one ridiculous decision after the other. Roh is annoying, and is persistently unfiltered and smugly righteous in a world that he doesn't understand. Taigan is a dick. Ahkio is the one nominal 'good guy', but, by contrast to the others - and the world he lives in - comes across as a wet blanket. He is an academic playing politics, philosophically and theoretically qualified, and, in practice, completely ill-suited and worse than useless.
There are two major caveats to the above. The first is, of course, that emotional engagement is the most subjective of all the subjective criteria. And overpowering distaste is, I guess, an emotional response. But that's semantics. Some folks might find Roh's propensity for annoying questions in the middle of state dinners charming. Or empathise with Lilia's shtick for abandoning useful people who might be able to answer questions in favour of wandering randomly in the wilderness. So be it.
The second caveat is that these character traits aren't - and apologies for the intent-ascribing language - accidental. These are all well-crafted variations on the traditional epic fantasy roles. The Chosen One is quest-obsessed to the point of stupidity. Taigan, the 'wise old man' tutor, would need to be a sociopath to operate in this world - desperate times, so either find the messiah or move on, but make that decision quickly. Ahkio is an example of ivory tower uselessness, but that shows exactly how difficult idealism can be in a ruthless and pragmatic world. These are fun-house mirror distortions of the traditional epic fantasy roles, all helping build the greater themes of the book. As The Mirror Empire tells us, 'sacrifices must be made' - and in this case, it is character empathy.
It is embarrassing? No. There's a lot of diversity in the protagonists, across gender, sexuality, race and cultural background. Granted, it also contains sexual violence, incest, graphic self-harm, cannibalism and genocide, so I wouldn't recommend this without serious recommendations, but The Mirror Empire is progressive in the sense that everyone and everything is equally awful. Nor is it awful for awful's sake. It is provocative with a mission to challenge; not pandering to a misguided sense of reader titillation.
I think much has been made about The Mirror Empire's fluid approach to gender. It is a combination of both clever obfuscation and a great deal of complexity. As the narrative expands, The Mirror Empire describes cultures with fixed gender and unfixed gender and transitive gender, cultures where it is anathema to touch without permission and cultures where sexual slavery is the norm, and, well, everything in-between/around/otherwise/etc. It is cleverly done, and supports the book's premise that all things are relative and socially-constructed.** You can stop and puzzle over the meaning of every pronoun and try to impose your own system upon it,... or accept the relative, individual viewpoint and move forward. And that's a decent lesson for life: let people choose for themselves and get on with the story. /moral?
Building on the premise that all things are relative, The Mirror Empire also presents the corollary "...and terrible". And that's putting it nicely. From a post-colonial standpoint, The Mirror Empire presents a world where nice people are being oppressed by mean people. And then an opposite world, where, given the opportunity, the nice people have become seriously shitty. A society where there's an established matriarchy, and they're just as ravenously, rapaciously terrible as any traditional patriarchy. A series of heroic quests where every character firmly believes that the ends justify the means - and, generally speaking, are shown that's correct, from chucking a kid off a cliff to abandoning your friends in the clutches of predators). Arguably the book's true-est 'hero' is Zezili, who not only does the most to 'save the world' (her world), but does so from the motivation of unenlightened self-interest and from a position of power and privilege within her society. This is not a book that rewards rebellion, consideration or self-sacrifice.
In the recent past, 'grimdark' narratives have been largely confined to traditional, patriarchal, white-dominated epic fantasies - and, I suppose, the element of 'hope' they bring is that, well, yes - these are the slippery-slope worlds that result from that worldview going unchecked. The Mirror Empire goes a step further, and largely posits that, actually, everyone and everything is equally shitty, and given a chance, today's oppressed would be tomorrow's oppressor. Which, although egalitarian, isn't particularly cheery.
Is it different? Yes. The Weirdness of the world, of course - complete with the oft-referred-to ambulatory plants (seriously, they come up a lot), bear-riders, and a magic system that's half the biological squickiness of God's War and half the hand-wavey schools of zorchiness of Brent Weeks' Lightbringer series. Plus the whole parallel universes colliding thing.***
But probably most different for the thematic notion of relativity - illustrated in everything from gender to cannibalism. Epic fantasy especially is a genre largely predicated on absolute Right and Wrong; world with destined heroes and inexplicable, inarguable villains. The total relativity of The Mirror Empire is, as noted above, the most extreme grimdark I've read yet - not just for the splatterpunk violence, but because there's no capital-g-Good for the reader to cling to.
Every year it seems that there's a book I slap the "respect, but didn't like" tag on (see: Prince, King and Emperor of Thorns). This year, it looks like the mantle is passed to The Mirror Empire. It is philosophically intriguing, but the conclusion is neither pleasant nor inspiring. Nor is The Mirror Empire an easy read in the traditional sense: it is dense, long, awash in new words, and prone to orgiastic descriptions of off-putting scenes. It deliberately challenges the reader on almost every conceivable level. I appreciate what it tries to do - even succeeds in doing, perhaps. But that doesn't mean I enjoyed it. But then, maybe that's the point.
*Hurley is also the author of one of my favourite books, God's War - a feisty, progressive, gloriously grim and gooey, 'hard SF' novel - one of my favourites. I mention this for two reasons. The first is, I have absolutely no idea why The Mirror Empire counts as a 'debut'. Even by the standards of the DGLA 'epic fantasy debut', definition it is hard to say why this book is any more 'fantasy' than the trilogy that preceded it. But again, and as with The Godless, once you're in, you're in, so that shouldn't factor into the judging. The other reason I mention this is that I really like God's War, and if, for some reason, I come down The Mirror Empire rather hard (spoiler: I do), it is worth noting that Hurley already did write the best epic fantasy debut of the year, it just came out in 2011.↩
**This is slightly contradicted by the character that actually physically changes gender with the rise and fall of the stars. But Taigan is, I believe, presented as the exception that proves the rule. I think. ↩
***I'm footnoting this because it is comparing apples and pears. But there are fascinating parallels (pun?) between the core concept of The Mirror Empire and Jonathan Hickman's Avengers/Illuminati writing - the latter being the long build-up to this year's Secret Wars event. In a nutshell, the greatest Marvel heroes have united behind the scenes to protect their universe from 'incursions' by parallel dimensions: invasions that occur with quasi-random, cosmically-defined frequency and always result in the destruction of one world or the other. (In a further bit of coincidence, the worlds are often shown with one being red and the other blue.) Where the interpretations differ is that Hickman has a heritage of heroism to build upon. When, say, Iron Man is in a position where he's forced to destroy a world to save his own, there's more emotional resonance with the reader, as we've had... generations... of knowing 'right' and 'wrong', and that Iron Man is a 'good guy' in the absolute sense. The Mirror Empire, as a new universe, doesn't have that cultural heritage to draw upon, which makes it tougher for us to a) understand the stakes and b) care about the people making the decision. On the other hand, the difference in format means that The Mirror Empire has 700 pages of text to explore the concept in detail, as well as what it means to the non-protagonist members of society, while the Marvel version is hand-wavey 'LOOKIT! CRISIS!'. This isn't a 'one is better than the other' sort of thing - more an interesting contrast between formats and approaches.↩