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Book Review: Empire Ascendant

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Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley (The Worldbreaker Saga II)

coming October 6th

Empire Ascendant Cover

Loyalties are tested when worlds collide…

Every two thousand years, the dark star Oma appears in the sky, bringing with it a tide of death and destruction. And those who survive must contend with friends and enemies newly imbued with violent powers. The kingdom of Saiduan already lies in ruin, decimated by invaders from another world who share the faces of those they seek to destroy.

Now the nation of Dhai is under siege by the same force. Their only hope for survival lies in the hands of an illegitimate ruler and a scullery maid with a powerful – but unpredictable – magic. As the foreign Empire spreads across the world like a disease, one of their former allies takes up her Empress’s sword again to unseat them, and two enslaved scholars begin a treacherous journey home with a long-lost secret that they hope is the key to the Empire’s undoing.

But when the enemy shares your own face, who can be trusted?

Here it is. My most anticipated novel of the year. I’ll go ahead and say outright that it was both worth the wait and satisfied my expectations. Pretty much right after reading The Mirror Empire, I did everything I could to secure an advanced copy of this one.

In this second installment, some things that were hinted at before are made explicit. Oma’s rise brings together not just two worlds but many. The geopolitical history of Raisa has been shaped by this conjunction for thousands of years. Major shake ups are coming again.

This book is, in a number of ways, a dark mirror to the first. The structure is the same, with a prologue and an epilogue enclosing multiple points of view. We even get into a few more heads this time around. But where The Mirror Empire opened on a young girl playing at being a folk hero, Empire Ascendant presents a killing field on which the ghoulish Tai Mora collect blood from the dead. Hurley explores the motivations, both personal and political, of their leader who tries to balance necessity with an increasing affected optimism.

There’s a contrast developing between what one is willing to give up in order to succeed and what one gives up in the attempt, willing or not. It’s fascinating to see this play out across several character arcs and the decisions and consequences are authentic to each individual and circumstance. With the stakes raised so high – the survival of nations, of races, of worlds hang in the balance – actions, or even lack thereof, reverberate through the text.

Raisa itself expands in our imagination. We get some spare but evocative looks in Aaldia, ruled by a quintumvirate of monarchs and the locus of hope some of the cast. Which, you know, is probably a dangerous thing to allow oneself in a Kameron Hurley story. I’ll hold onto it for now, though. It’s not something I’m willing to give up. Our illusions sustain us in these troubling times. And we spend a comparatively great deal of time in Tordin, where a charismatic despotic patriarch is attempting to unite fractious territories. He may end up succeeding in a way he never imagined.

Print

Empire Ascendant doubles down on some of the controversial elements that made Part I of The Worldbreaker Saga so delightful. Saidauan’s third gender is presented more fully and I finally get to read a book with ze/hir pronouns. One of the logical complications of Dhai’s voluntary gender quinary results in a surprise for the reader that also contrasts the cultures of two worlds.

The Mirror Empire was a grim, uncompromising narrative that mixed brutality, epic romance, and millennarian excitement. Empire Ascendant is more like a confrontation with inevitability. The Tai Mora invasion proceeds with unstoppable efficiency. Our heroes, such as they were, are left with a story in tatters and the responsibility of responding in the moment. And the reader wonders if they’re ready for the coming conflagration.

You can check out a preview at Tor.com.

Recommended for fans of The Empire Strikes Back, “Sympathy for the Devil,” and The Wicked + The Divine.

 

 

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