August 24, 2014 by mmileti
Every once in a while a novel comes along that is so innovative it has the potential to redefine and an entire genre. Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley is such a novel; an epic fantasy that is truly unique and remarkable. Hurley’s first novel God’s War won several awards for best debut novel in 2011, and was nominated for an Arthur C. Clark award, a Nebula award, and a Locus award. Hurley is not a newcomer when it comes to writing amazing novels that make the speculative fiction community take notice, but Mirror Empire is even more ambitious and groundbreaking than any of her previous work. In fact, her writing style alone is so distinctive that it alone will most likely cause this novel to be polarizing among its readers, much like the Malazan novels by Steven Erickson. There will be many readers who absolutely fall in love with Mirror Empire, but I also anticipate that many readers will find Hurley’s writing style too hectic, be weighed down by the number of POV characters and the scope of her world building, or find her reversal of gender roles and exotic setting too strange. It is definitely not a novel that everyone will be able to engage with, but those that do are in for a spectacular treat.
The story begins with Lilia, a young girl whose home is attacked by invaders. Lilia’s mother is a blood witch, and to save her daughter she opens a portal to another world and shoves Lilia through it, only to orphan her in a place that is both alien and eerily like her own. Lilia’s memories of that night are incomplete, and she is unaware that she has been thrust from a world on the brink of destruction. It is not until her old world starts to seep into her new one, and brings the threat of annihilation with it, that she starts to uncover her bloody past and the rising of a dark star that will bring power to a few, mayhem to all, and a war between two worlds.
Though this novel is everything that I could wish for and more in an epic fantasy, I have to warn potential readers that the disparate plot lines and chaotically fast paced writing style will confuse the hell out of you for some time before the beauty of the story starts to unfold. It is similar to Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen in that way, but luckily the complete foreignness and alien wonder of Hurley’s world building made me want to stick with the story from the very first chapter, no matter how baffling the plot was at times.
I also found the intellectual ambitions of the novel kept me occupied during the places in the plot where the sequence of events became too dislocated. I was especially impressed with Hurley’s reversal of gender roles, where women are the warriors and heads of households, and the men have to deal with issues like rape and virtual ownership by their wives. I loved that Hurley made gender dominance just as horrifying from the opposite perspective, while at the same time showed the reader that both men and women are capable of both good and evil, and that to be human is to be subject to one’s society and the fight for survival at any cost.
Mirror Empire is very dark in tone, and the violence and detailed depictions of the horrors of war are the common thread in the novel’s otherwise disparate plot lines. Hurley’s writing rivals the darkness of authors like Mark Lawrence and Joe Abercrombie, and she manages to multiply their gritty brutality to a worldwide scale. In Mirror Empire there are no characters that are untouched by war, and therefore none that can escape both causing and living through atrocities.
It is amazing how Hurley can take ideas that are so universal for the basis of her plot and setting, and from them create a world that is so utterly foreign to the reader. The idea of mirror realities or dimensions is far from original within the fantasy genre, and basic human qualities like moral ambiguousness are the foundation for many of the story’s themes. Despite this, more imagination and ingenuity was put into the novel’s world building than any other book I have read. From structures and weapons made/grown from organic materials, to walking bloodthirsty trees, dogs and unrecognizable bears substituted for horses, and a magic system that is derived from the planet’s moons, you are unlikely to come across a fantasy set in a world so aesthetically different from our own. The cultures of this world are vastly dissimilar as well, with the reversed gender roles, and one of the prominent societies being unabashed cannibals. But the basic human tendencies are still present, and Hurley’s ability to highlight human nature by putting it in the middle of a completely alien setting is both clever and fascinating.
Obviously, I would not recommend this novel to anyone looking for a light and fun read. Mirror Empire is an epic undertaking that will sweep you away even before you read enough to make sense of the plot and multiple POV characters. It is a very dark book, and an extremely imaginative one, and it is only the very beginning of a series that promises to be vast and wonderfully weird. If you are looking to kick back with some easy entertainment, I advise you to look elsewhere. I would recommend this novel to anyone looking for a challenging read in a dark but epic setting.
My rating: 8.5/10
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley and the publisher in return for an honest review.