Magical society is beautifully turned on its head in Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire. As the first installment of the Worldbreaker Saga, we are drawn into a fully realized world. Hurley mixes ingenuity with adventure to create a plot which is full of intrigue.
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. At the heart of this war lie the pacifistic Dhai people, once enslaved by the Saiduan and now courted by their former masters to provide aid against the encroaching enemy.
Stretching from desolate tundra to steamy, semi-tropical climes seething with sentient plant life, this is an epic tale of blood mages and mercenaries, emperors and priestly assassins who must unite to save a world on the brink of 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 to save his skin; 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.
There is undoubtedly two thing that makes The Mirror Empire stand out from its counterparts. These things are ones that shouldn’t be so revolutionary in the twenty first century but actually is. Hurley creates a society where monogamy is rare and bisexuaIity is the norm. We consistently see family structures which are polar opposites of the nuclear family. Hurley’s approach is one that presents these families without commentary. At no point did I feel like Hurley had an agenda, instead the reader is able to simply take something unconventional as a truth of the book’s society. The reason I loved this so much is because it was a fresh take on something which is built into culture so much as to always be prevalent in literature. The characters use marriage for creating ties between clans and they use every opportunities to do so, not having the limitation or expectation of one tie. This creates an intricate layer of nearly everyone being related. The great thing about this is that it makes decisions about life and death magnified exponentially.
The other thing which is so different is that Hurley creates an extremely gender fluid society. Within The Mirror Empire are several different cultures and we are introduced to their respective traits and definition of normal. In one society, the Dhai, genders are generally equal but there’s an unspoken expectation that women are leaders. This culture interestingly has aggressive and passive pronouns for male and female. In contrast, another society is entirely matriarchal. Not only are women the leaders, they are the soldiers, breadwinners and protectors. Men are simply used for pleasure and prestige, an entire reversal of historic gender roles. Perhaps the most interesting gender play is one that has been played at before in science fiction, that of a third gender that is neither and both male and female. This goes a step further with one character named Taigan that while part of the Saiduan society which had three genders, falls into none of them. Taigan actually magically changes gender cyclically. All of these tidbits create a story with stellar thought-provoking cultures.
Hurley’s full cast of characters are as different as the many cultures. Through switching perspective, we are able to delve deeply into several characters. While some characters were a bit predictable, such as Lilia, maid turned mage, all of them are well written. One of the most memorable was Ahkio, a passive man who is reluctantly thrown into leadership. My favorite, and the most relatable for me was Zezili, a female knight who must question her own principles and way of life. The characters all develop naturally throughout The Mirror Empire for a nice, though foreseeable, ending.
Even if one put aside all of the neat details which Hurley infused into The Mirror Empire you’d still find an interesting storyline. Each character and sub plot is able to turn and twist in its own right. Hurley then weaves them all together like a beautiful tapestry of a world. If that weren’t enough, we have the book’s namesake. As it implies, there is indeed a mirror empire. These dimensions are unique and we get to make comparisons between characters and their alternate selves.
While there are downsides to The Mirror Empire, such as plotlines which are somewhat expected, there are countless things which make it a really good read. I noticed that Hurley had a knack for downplaying things which are usually personal annoyances of mine. For instance, though the cast was quite young, it at no time felt like a young adult novel. Hurley managed this by focusing more on life stage than age, creating characters that are relatable to most adults. It seems that this would appeal to people who normally like fantasy and those who may just watch Game of Thrones obsessively. I know that I can’t wait to see what Hurley comes up with next.