This is the freshest take on pretty much everything I’ve seen all year.
On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past… while a world goes to war with itself.
In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin.
As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress.
Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.
In the end, one world will rise – and many will perish.
I think the biggest fear about secondary worlds, my biggest fear anyway, is that the story will be just interesting enough to shepherd the reader through a Potempkin village with no real depth. That hours spent reading won’t stand up to scrutiny afterward. That there’ll be nothing there the next time you look.
It’s a fear because there are precedents. Even this year I’ve read books that have one or two memorable pieces essentially suspended in a colorless forgettable void. The Mirror Empire is not one of those books.
I finished it in a few days and have been struggling with it ever since. In a good way. There’s a lot to wrap one’s head around. It’s not just one secondary world, after all, but at least two; imperfectly mirroring one another with sometimes shared histories. It’s multiple alternative cultures that reflect and refract our own. It’s toxic, predatory environments, interdimensional maneuvering, several sexes and genders, and multiple points of view.
It’s not confusing, it’s just robust. Kameron Hurley has presented a world worth asking questions about. A world wherein those questions can be answered. A world where those answers are interesting. Where consideration is worthwhile.
Raisa, the world, is deep, complex, and tightly woven, like the tirajista trained cocoons that protect Dhai villages from the semi-intelligent invasive flora. Tirajistas are one variety of the native astromancers whose power rises and falls with the periodic revolutions of four heavenly bodies. The Dhai are the culture of note, otherwise vegetarian endocannibalistic radical pacifist astrolators for whom contact without consent is the gravest taboo.
They allow five gender identifications and we’re given examples of all of them, actively experiencing four. They reach the age of consent at ten and freely choose their gender rather than having it thrust on them by society. Late in the novel, Rohimney (male-aggressive) comes to the deplorable realization that no one in the despotic imperial patriarchy Saiduan chose their gender. Rather, they had one of three assigned by their society according to their sexual organs and secondary characteristics. Dorinah, a militaristic slaving matriarchy has only two: dominant females and servile males.
In a world where characters who self identify as one gender might be misgendered in ours, where a patriarchal culture nonetheless acknowledges intersexuality, it’s perhaps ironic that the most interesting relationship appears within its simplest construction. Dorinah is a dark mirror of our extremes, and Anavha, husband to the genocidal Captain General Zezili, is a lightning bolt from god. Anavha’s arc shows rather than tells exactly how miserable and overwhelming a lifetime of gendered oppression can be. And yet, he’s still beautifully, desperately human.
The story, too, is satisfyingly sophisticated. The prologue opens on the nominal protagonist Lilia as a young child playing folk hero in a poppy field. There are enough tropes like that, the girl who wants to be the legendary figure, to anchor the fantasy reader as she’s thrust through a tear in reality amidst a shower of blood and acid, crippling her and marooning her on an alien world.
It’s important to hold onto those familiar structural landmarks as you get comfortable in the strange and fascinating landscapes and dramas. This is an epic. There are repeating patterns in the story and within the story. There are stories about the story with multiple versions. The folk hero Lilia played at being existed on both worlds, but her story is different depending on the community its told in, the medium in which it’s related, and the intended audience. There are political and military machinations, uneasy alliances, and betrayals.
It’s not alienated, though. There are twelve point of view characters and every single one of them is almost uncomfortably real. The history and culture of this world are demonstrated as each of them experiences, absorbs, and reacts to local events within the larger scope of what’s more or less a planetary invasion.
It’s this intimacy that makes the larger story compelling. While Lilia’s search for her mother scores the story, many of the other narrative arcs are just as pertinent. Ahkio and Rohinmey provide opposing perspectives on Dhai society. Zezili and Anavha illuminate Dorinah. Maralah and Taigan elucidate Saiduan.
Through their eyes genocide will both make sense and be utterly unconscionable, and both for the wrong reasons. A society will reknit itself through compassion and compromise rather than upheaval and destruction. History will repeat itself. Destiny will be designed.
The Mirror Empire is polished and well executed. The multiple narratives serve one another and the larger plot. The reader learns about a profoundly unusual setting along with the characters within it. The balance of youth and experience is no accident, here. Broad vistas collapse into intimate moments in order to personify crises and resolutions.
I was left with substantial questions and an incredible desire for more. So much so that I bought a second copy to get the second installment just a little early.
Recommended for fans of portal fiction, leaps of faith, and the promise of speculative imagination.