The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, Angry Robot p/b £8.99, Ebook £5.49, Website
Reviewed by Allen Stroud
The talk around Kameron Hurley after her Hugo winning blog article ‘Women Have Always Fought’ certainly made sure there would be attention on her next novel and this is it; ‘The Mirror Empire: Book 1 of The Worldbreaker Saga.’
The story begins with the sack of a village and a young girl fleeing through a magical portal having witnessed her mother’s execution. From here we start to learn of the worlds and societies that form Hurley’s story canvas, but there is little time given for the reader in this process. Concepts are introduced and accepted quickly as they are part of the character’s normal lives and little compromise of this is made to help you identify with them. With such a different world, this makes the initial ‘jump’ a bit tricky, but this does settle and become easier as the action varies its base, allowing a little more time for the reader to soak up Hurley’s ideas.
One thing that struck me early on was the description of scenes. Everything is colour, with bright contrasts in each setting and circumstance. The whirling conflicts are a little difficult to picture, but perhaps more because they are such vivid images; swords that are branches, extending magically from the forearms of their wielders and a mass of story specific terminology that marches straight past.
We have quite a patchwork of interwoven stories that gradually settle into two or three main themes. As the plot develops we begin to understand the principles of ‘the mirror’. A lot of thought has gone into the design of these ideas and the reveal is carefully structured so as to be a surprise and a development, rather than a glottal stop. In many ways a weakness of Raymond E. Feist’s premise in his Riftwar Saga was the lack of exploration of the rift principle, a factor given more consideration by the roleplaying game Rifts by Palladium Books. Hurley’s story is clearly a very different beast, her societies, significantly more culturally different than Kelewan and Midkemia are to our own.
Hurley continually dodges the fantasy cliché of over exposition. The parameters of magic are more often experienced than told to us. The shallow knowledge of the present and search by many of the characters to find out about the invasions and ascendency of stars of the past means we discovery with them.
There is a clear sense of otherness about the realities we experience in ‘The Mirror Empire’. These humans are both similar and different. We have three genders in one world and five in another. The way in which this affects each character’s mind, in terms of attraction to others is well handled and reminiscent of Ian M. Banks’ ‘Azad’ in ‘The Player of Games’, but you do remain a little unsure as to whether the genders are a reproductive requirement. That said, gender hierarchies are explored between worlds and cultures, making the relationships, prejudices and customs a heady and varied mix.
Distinct characters abound in this story, but they are occasionally held back by the work’s artifice. The ‘mirrored’ society of worlds becomes confusing at times as we have identically named characters in each with different traits. For a time, the book suffers from having too much characterisation that you cannot identify with owing to the continual issue of trying to work out ‘which side’ you’re with in each scene. Hurley does take care to ensure we do not have direct meetings and conflict between identical pairs, but when Ahkio talks of his dead sister in one scene and the next is a conversation between her ‘mirror’ and a servant, the story becomes difficult to keep track of. The different cultures of Dhia between each world provide a link but also a complication. The lack of immediate identifiers that signal each world context affects this in part, but then they are supposed to be mirrors and the characters we follow are also confused by what is happening.
Additionally, no punches are pulled in the character’s experiences. Death, betrayal, destruction, magic, sex, politics, suffering, war and more all feature as and when required. There is no sense Hurley shies from any content, nor that she wallows in any aspect.
A trope toyed with by Hurley is the binary of good and evil that abounds in Fantasy. Here, we have a clear sense of the adversaries who confront each character, but the wider conflict remains a confusion between worlds. Which world is invading which? The clear enemy are those with the knowledge and power who using these to force the situation, but these might be different people for each of our character perspective contexts.
This matter becomes still more complex with a revelation around two thirds of the way through the book, which really does start to reveal how much scope there is for ideas in the continuing saga. However, you do get used to the transference and in the end determining which world in each intertwined story becomes a quest of detection for the reader alongside our consumption of the narrative. It is perhaps this awareness that gives the work a Brechtian feel of observation at times.
The end of ‘The Mirror Empire’ gives some achievement in its conclusions, but also sets up the story for further books in the Worldbreaker Saga. Amongst a long shelf of books, this series will always stand out for what it attempts to achieve. Whether it can achieve it will require further reading, but so far, so good.