I 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.)