The Mirror Empire: Worldbreaker Saga 1
by Kameron Hurley
Cover Artist: Richard Anderson
Review by Benjamin Wald
Angry Robot Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780857665560
Date: 26 August 2014 List Price $14.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Kameron Hurley made waves with her debut trilogy of SF novels, which was distinguished by its innovative and thoughtful approach to violence, religion, gender, and prejudice. With her new epic fantasy series, Hurley has shown that she is no one trick pony. The Mirror Empire is a fresh, vigorous, and gripping entrant into the epic fantasy genre, able to stand toe-to-toe with any of the heavyweight series out there.
The novel follows characters in three very different societies. The Dhai live in a small and generally peaceful country surrounded by more aggressive neighbors. Former slaves, the Dhai have established a decentralized nation centered around large family groupings with minimal government. They are polyamorous, with group marriages the norm, and by the far the most egalitarian social system of the any of the nations in the novel. They are, in many ways, a Utopian society, although Hurley is careful to show the many petty feuds and hardships that still exist. This contrasts sharply with the Siduan, a warlike nation where succession in the government is determined by whoever can murder the previous leader, called the Patron, and a corp of assassins to serve and protect the Patron. Rhea, also an aggressive nation, is a strict and repressive matriarchy, with most men killed as children and the few who live owned as property, and its also a slave state, with the Dhai who did not escape to their own nation as slave labor, many of whom live in camps when not pressed into service for the harvest or other labor intensive projects. Each of these three nations is wonderfully realized, showcasing Hurley's ability to explore the consequences of different social systems in distressingly realistic detail.
The plot focuses on a catastrophe that threatens all three nations. In the world of The Mirror Empire, some individuals can wield incredible powers by channeling the power of the satellites, three stars that each grant a specific domain of influence. Those who channel Tira can effect living things, twisting plants and animals to serve as weapons or tools and healing injuries. Those attuned to Para can manipulate the air, either to build or to destroy. Sina is associated with death and with the soul. Only one of these satellites is ascendant at a time, granting its powers to those sensitive to it, with those attuned to the other two satellites greatly weakened until their star becomes ascendant again. But now, after centuries, the fourth satellite, Oma, is rising again, bringing with it a cyclical catastrophe that threatens to destroy all three nations, and granting those attuned to Oma strange powers that they will need to harness to defend against the coming catastrophe.
One of the things I love about this novel is how it constantly explores and confounds the clichés of the epic fantasy genre. For example, the stock character of such novels is the farm boy who wishes for a quiet life but is destined for greatness. In The Mirror Empire, Roh is a young boy who longs for adventure and greatness, but who the seers have prophesied will die as a farmer, a fate he strives to escape. There is a young woman who is taken away by a mysterious stranger, but rather than allow herself to be carted around, she consistently strives to exert her agency, sometimes successfully, sometimes with tragic results. This never feels forced, these characters are integral to the story and are not just included to confound clichés, but the avoidance of clichés is an added pleasure to this excellently written work.
The Mirror Empire, like Hurley's earlier work, thoughtfully engages with both violence and gender. The Dhai, for instance, have seven genders, while the Siduan have three, and in both societies there are those who fail to fit any of the available categories. In creating the Rhea, with their extreme matriarchy and oppression of men, Hurley avoids the pitfall of making this a simple reversal of patriarchy--it is every bit as oppressive, but in its own way that feels authentic while still engaging with the issue of sexism in general. As for violence, while the action scenes are every bit as thrilling as anything in fantasy today, Hurley is also always willing to interrogate the cost of violence. Violence is never glamorized, and the struggles experienced by the normally peaceful Dhai as they are forced to prepare for war, and the fear that this will destroy what is so valuable in the society they have established, is one of the most successful elements of the novel.
I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. My only regret is that I must now wait for the next volume to see where Hurley goes next. The Mirror Empire has it all--compelling characters, gripping plot, thoughtful examination of major themes, and intricate world building. I can't wait to see what happens next.