Book Review: The Mirror Empire

20646731I will say this: with The Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley definitely tried to step outside the classic boundaries where fantasy is concerned. True to form, if there was a trope or type to be twisted, she at the least inverted it.

This was my first experience with Kameron Hurley, despite certain implorations from friends. As such, I went in without any expectations, and what I found gave me swift hopes. Stylistically, the script flows easily, with poignant prose and snappy, fast-moving dialogue. Playing with the traditional concepts of gender was slapped right up front—one culture had five, another three. Male and female role reversal was leading the charge. To top it all off, there was the lush opportunity of a world consumed, not by Hell or another Plane or that shadowy kingdom to the south, but by an alternate version of itself. Furthermore, the magic system features a litany of powers derived from the various stars themselves, and whichever was ascendant at the time, turning literal the classic quip of “celestial magic.”

In essence, it is a book set to challenge many of the long-standing conventions of epic fantasy, while presenting a backdrop with action-packed potential beyond cultural revolution.

To begin, the story itself: it hops around a goodly bit, but we are granted the advantage of world-building spanning not just one, but two worlds. Herein, the world of the main characters is in the grips of a major cataclysm, heralded by the rising of a dark star which allows alternate versions of that planet to essentially align with one another and break the boundaries like spirits on Halloween. Enter Lilia, a young woman shunted between two of these worlds and left with an unshakable determination to rejoin her mother. Meanwhile, alternate versions of everyone she knows and meets are essentially plotting the doom of…well, everyone she knows and meets. Enemies are everywhere and countries are tearing themselves apart trying to stop armies on the march and root out spies wearing friends’ and lovers’ skins. The story bounces between these nations, from the perspectives of Lilia, a newly-crowned Kai (king), a masochistic but devoted general, and one of Lilia’s powerful but rather clueless friends.

Perspective, perspective, perspective is key here. There’s plenty of it—which, let’s be honest, is fairly standard these days. Unfortunately, these are a touch hit or miss. We never quite get inside characters’ heads, no matter how much time we spend with them. The particular POV gives us thoughts, at times, but never fully immerses us in the person we are tailing; there is always some aloofness. There’s a number of times the POV shifts to one-off characters, who appear only long enough to be snuffed out. Furthermore, some of the main characters slouch a bit when it comes to impressions. (VAGUE SPOILER FOLLOWS) In the case of Zezili, the general-savior-man raper of an empire, the only admirable quality she really shows is her loyalty, and her whole arc is based around the necessity of breaking that quality for the greater good. Lilia, our focal point for the series, starts off strong, and she had a lot of potential, but as more characters came in, her single-minded focus seemed to railroad her development more than a bit, only to be rushed toward evolution at the end. It felt…haphazard. As for the less than kingly Kai? Much of his arc is others solving problems while he laments his ability to pursue one polyamorous love.

Which…honestly is another thing that gave me pause. I loved the potential of the gender bending dynamic here. When Hurley began to mention the genders, as well as relationships, and scratch the surface of their roles and meanings, I got giddy. So many possibilities. It could have had a real opportunity to expand self-consciousness and find new ways at considering how we identify. Instead, this…didn’t go to the depths I wanted it to.

That’s not to say there wasn’t some examination. The polyamorous style of relations, the inherently bisexual quality of most characters, the submissive quality of the male role—while far from subtle, were an interesting dynamic to see played out. Women were decidedly the guiding factor in most lands. Yet that seemed to be as far as it went in most cases. There was no real expansion on the genders, no depth given to lend them individual intricacy. People talked frequently of the partners they wished to mate with, the various structures of love they wished to enter into, but aside from one case, where it was more of a harem, we never got to see how this structure worked, how people entered into them, where these roles actually put people in terms of sexuality and relationships, and their place within them. It allowed for power role reversal, but never brought these identities to life.

That said, there is plenty of originality here, and a vivid, sweeping quality of culture that cannot go unnoticed and unrecognized. In terms of worldbuilding, it was top notch, and without a trace of the western aligned molds fantasy so often falls so neatly into. Cannibalistic Buddhism, dog horses and bear cavalry (though tragically we never got to see them at war), and organic structures woven of vines, mushrooms and magic, along with the prevalence of blood magic made for a dizzying array of structural uniqueness that immediately tosses the reader out of Kansas and into a magical realm. This is no Uncanny Valley; this is 100% fantasy.

Also, sentient plants that like to eat people. Take THAT, vegetarians.

Overall? I’d recommend it for the exceptionality and the issues it prods, as well as the start it embodies in stepping outside cultural norms. The worldbuilding is solid, and even if you have some trouble connecting with the characters, the pace should be enough to sweep you along.

(But seriously: bear cavalry in an adult fantasy novel. This is where you slow clap.)

The Hollow March Anniversary Photoshoot

Yes, you read that right. This frigid little month marks the fourth anniversary of The Hollow March‘s debut, and for that, I decided to have a little fun (AKA be a dork and play with sharp, pointy things). For those of you lurking about Facebook and Twitter, of course, this will come as no surprise, but yesterday I garbed up and got medieval on the Internet, essentially cosplaying as one of my novels’ main characters, Rurik Matair.

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The results were filled with grim shadowplay, filters, and were ruddy mysterious, but had the added advantage of a fancy hat and a scimitar. I would like to have kept both, but alas, neither was within my photographer’s purview to grant (woe is me).

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It has been a long, strange ride friends. In these four years I have not only seen birthed a series I had been dreaming up for the better part of a decade, but concluded it as well. Three books in four years; not too shabby for someone still fending off the latter half of their twenties, wouldn’t you say?

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Like the silliness? Want more? Want to dress up, too, or have great cosplays from other literature to share? Pop your thoughts and links into the comments, and share around. It’s an anniversary, after all, and that means it’s time for a party.

And for those of you that have stumbled across this site for the first time, and for whom this is their first introduction to me: where have you been? Here’s the link to my books, so you know who I am: http://www.amazon.com/Chris-Galford/e/B007A9XDXK/

Mementos of Distance

A new month, new energy, and plenty of new creations under my belt…

Come on, 2015, there’s still a little time left. Let’s finish it with a bang!

(And some poetry, of course…)

Outside, the snow is falling
silence stretches in the weight behind
the distance flakes have traveled
what they have seen
what they have known
lonely mementos of their fading.

On Turkeys, Great and Small

Alright everybody, just a heads up. There’s been a lot happening in the world; you know it, I know it, me posting about it here would just clog the Internet up with another voice shouting about senselessness into the void. Many have expressed my heart’s feelings on the matter better than I could, but if you really wanted to hear me screaming, go through the backlog of my Twitter. It’s filled with late night laments.

I know I write entertainment. It’s what most people turn to literature for. That said, the way the world’s been spiraling, well…it hasn’t been terribly conducive to that process. One of the burdens of being creative? Your heart gets pulled in a lot of different directions.

So, right, the heads-up. Basically, I wanted you all to know I’m taking the rest of the month off. Partly because I’m going to be spending the upcoming (American) holiday in Virginia, partly to finish up Christmas gifts for those close to me (you probably know who you are, and you’re going to be getting some stories), and partly because I’m trying to figure out next steps.

Next month marks the anniversary of the release of THE HOLLOW MARCH and that’s always a nostalgic and interesting time for me. A number of projects have also fallen through in recent days, and that winter depression is already clawing at my bones.

In other words? Drawing lines. Taking care of myself.

As I hope you all are doing. I’ll see you in December with plenty of new stuff. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to write. I see you, I hear you, and I have mad amounts of those heart-related feelings for you all.

Angry Turkeys for everyone!

These 10 SFF Magazines Will Change The Way You Look At Fiction

Short Fiction is where novels have their beginnings. Or endings. Depending on how you look at it. Some authors make short stories of what might have been a novel that never got off the ground. Others thrust forth from single ideas given room to play. They come in all shapes (and ironically) sizes, but they are, at their heart, authors’ playgrounds. Novels are where the public acclaim lies, but short stories are where true progress in the genre is made.

Of course, nowadays one can’t even call them products of magazines. Some are, certainly, but there are podcasts and anthologies and e-zines—modernity has really diversified its portfolio on the fiction telling front. Some are paid. Some aren’t. Some are cobbled together by the resources of universities, others independently operated, and still others funded through advertisements, donations or Kickstarter.

Regardless of their roots, here follows a list of 10 personal favorites as a reader. Please note, they are in no particular order, nor does their presence here reduce, in any way, the standing of any other magazines.

  1. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

If I didn’t have the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction on here, you couldn’t take me seriously. An absolute beast of a magazine, this market’s story has been running since 1949, with hundreds of pages between its covers. Nowadays F&SF is perhaps best known for giving us Stephen King’s Gunslinger tales and the classic for schools everywhere, Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes. This magazine (digest, really) is the unshaken epitome of a fiction short story publisher, with stories that range drastically in length and topic, genre and style.

I have been reading F&SF since high school and I have never regretted the decision.

  1. Daily Science Fiction

These fellows have a simple but effective model: give them your e-mail, they’ll send you a story every weekday, generally in the wee hours of the morning. Nothing longer than 1,500 words and, despite the name, they have a pretty diverse collection of both sci-fi and fantasy works. It makes for a great way to start your morning, getting you settled in outer space before the 9-5 grinds you back into that desk.

Sorry. I’m a little bitter. That desk is contained within a cubicle.

  1. Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons is a weekly magazine, and more than short stories, it comes to the table full of fiction, poetry, essays and reviews. They offer a comprehensive collection of goodies that covers pretty effectively the state of modern sci-fi and fantasy. If I want industry news or a breakdown of perspective relevant to issues facing genre writers and readers alike, this is my go-to.

  1. Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Literary adventure fantasy. What does that mean? Secondary worlds, with the story focus on the journey, the struggle, and the beautiful, enticing prose. Tolkien’s works would soar here, if they weren’t so bloody long in the first place. Despite the fairly specific focus, too, the magazine’s authors manage to find a rather eclectic approach to the voyage. Fellowships optional.

  1. Clarkesworld

Like the Magazine for Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld is on pretty much every list. That’s because it delivers consistently. Also like the aforementioned, it takes in stories from across the speculative board (although the bulk of its material do tend toward harder sci-fi roots), and at greatly varying lengths. Small novels are not uncommon in its pages (novellas) and the website also hosts a delightful amount of podcasts for those who have things to do and places to be.

  1. Lightspeed

Lightspeed holds a special place in my heart. I remember when it first came out. It was just a few months before I graduated from college. I’m not ashamed to say I’ve been trying to get published there ever since, but given the talent crammed between its pages, it’s certainly an uphill battle. Begun as the sci-fi counterpart to the simply named Fantasy Magazine, it eventually absorbed its sister and today ranges across the speculative plains (though horror is still relegated to Editor John Joseph Adams’ other magazine: Nightmare). Selected stories are made into free podcasts.

Also notable for its recent production of “Destroy Science Fiction” anthologies, which have highlighted the plights of gender, sexual orientation, minorities and, more generally, DIVERSITY issues in the realms of fantasy and sci-fi. I couldn’t begin to list the number of awards this magazine has won.

  1. Apex

Normally, I’m not a big fan of contemporary fantasy. Apex seriously makes me reconsider that notion. While open to sci-fi and fantasy alike, they do seem to have more than their fair share of contemporary, and the one thing linking it all together is the superb writing. A monthly magazine, Apex kindly puts up more than half of each issue for free on their website.

It also has the distinction of hosting one of my straight up favorite short stories: The Bread We Eat in Dreams, by Catherynne M. Valente. Dark fantasy, it combines demons, American history, time-lapse and nature to enchanting effect. It builds. Oh does it build.

  1. Uncanny Magazine

Behold the dreams Kickstarter can give life! The newest market on this list, Uncanny Magazine is only on its second birthday, but thanks to its space unicorns (backers) it was funded enough to become an SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) approved market right off the bat, with a strong debut. Guided by the husband and wife duo Michael and Lynne Thomas, it features podcasts, poetry, essays and all the fantasy and sci-fi a growing reader could eat. Like its improbable birth, this magazine exists in the uncanny valley, with just the right amount of quirk to keep things engaging.

You can also read about Uncanny Magazine’s journey through Kickstarter here.

  1. Grimdark Magazine

Bless the Australians, because they’ve taken one of the most popular twists on the old school genres right now and given it room to grow. The offspring of dark and low fantasy, it’s exemplified by people like Joe Abercrombie and R. Scott Bakker…the former of which has had pieces within Grimdark’s pages. Moral ambiguity, savage heroes and gritty situations abound. If you want to feel the borders between the real world and your fantasy disappearing, this is the light to head toward.

  1. Drabblecast

Drabblecast is one of those podcasts I spoke of, a broad collection of fantasy, sci-fi, horror and downright silly that set the standard for narrative. If you’re elbows deep in another project, or otherwise engaged, but need some good background sound or something to carry you away for a bit, let the voices of the Drabblecast readers give your eyes a chance to recover. They even have Drabbles and Twabbles, which are 100 word and 100 character stories, respectively…if you really want to just machine gun through some story ideas.

What are some of your favorite magazines? There are plenty of others I could name, but I had to draw the line in the sand somewhere. Hopefully this will give you plenty of literary food for thought for a drizzly Thursday morning, though.

(And while I’m plugging stuff, let me point out that if you haven’t yet, you should definitely check out my friend Bryce David Salazar’s debut novel, She Sees Metaphors. It’s short, it’s contemporary fiction (fantasy?), and its images will devour you. You need this book badly. Go now.