Rewriting the Script: a review of The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Mirror Empire

Series: The Worldbreaker Saga #1 | Genre: Epic fantasy | Format: ARC | Publisher: Angry Robot | Publication date: August 26th 2014 (US & ebook); September 4th 2014 (UK print) | My rating: 4/5

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’ve read epic fantasy before. I’ve read some good epics, some not so good, and I’ve read some truly amazing ones. Kameron Hurley has written something that, while still belonging firmly in that category of fantasy, is unlike anything I’ve read before. From start to finish, there is the definite sense that Kameron has written the epic fantasy that she wants to read – and while this is probably not a new tactic by any means, what she’s also done is write the kind of epic fantasy that we need to be reading.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying this book is perfect. It’s not. But in light of everything that I think Kameron does right with it, these flaws ultimately strike me as minimal, and indeed fixable. I went in with a lot of anticipation, and I must admit I’m coming out again with … well, more of the same, only keener, where Book Two is concerned.

I will now attempt to explain! *Clears throat*

From the word go, there are two things you need to be doing as you read The Mirror Empire. You need to have an open mind (no really, you need to throw those mental doors wide open or this book is not going to fit) and you really need to be paying attention. The world(s) that Kameron brings us into are vast, and they are complicated – to say nothing of the characters guiding us along the way. If you’re looking for popcorn entertainment or More Of The Same, you need to stop and turn back right now. Otherwise, yeah. Be paying attention.

There is a lot of information to take in, and quite the mental balancing act to be done before everything clicks into place and you really settle into the story here. To be absolutely fair, this might just have been me – it may well be easier than that for others, but these are the things I have to judge it on, and indeed the things I’ve been a bit critical of. There were a couple of times, early in the book, where I wasn’t sure if I could pull off that balancing act. Then again, I reached the end of the book and I’m here telling you that you need to read it, so that tells you as much, if not more, about what I thought of it all…

Let’s move on to the actual worldbuilding. Because seriously. It is spectacular. From the bloodthirsty plant life to the over-arching, perilous inevitability of the portal magic that gives The Mirror Empire its name, nothing about this world is less than dangerous, or less than impressive. And it is diverse! There, we’re getting into a big reason why this book matters. I’d happily believe the theory that Kameron Hurley is pathologically incapable of writing More Of The Same, and it’s freaking awesome to behold her results. As I said before, this feels like the kind of story that she’d want to read – and if this is true, then she’s got bloody marvellous good taste.

She is not easy on her characters. Big disclaimer, right there – they are put through the wringer time and again. (Anavha. Jesus, Kameron. ARGH.) As with any good approach to characterisation, though, it’s the conflicts and the dangers they face that really highlight who these people are, and pave the potential roads they’ll go down. I mention Anavha, specifically, here because for me he’s the most interesting character featured. If you’ve read the book, you probably know of what I speak. If not… Pay attention to him. Keep that open mind. Do this, and I think you will understand exactly what I mean when I say this book is important. And if his story isn’t ultimately vital within the larger scheme of things, I’ll be sorely disappointed. (In other words, Hurley, if you pull a GRRM here* there will be fan-rage. Possibly also book-throwing.)

As with just about any first book in an epic fantasy saga, however, this is the one where the plot threads need to be spun out before the weaving begins, and this achievement is indeed unlocked, but if I can nitpick again here for a second, it also kind of hits that first-book hurdle of being the one that needs a bit more polish. I love this book and the setup for future epic-ness that it leaves us with, but as I said before, it is by no means perfect. On the other hand, I try not to ever expect perfection. Just a story worth reading – and Kameron gives us that in spades.

So, there it is. The Mirror Empire isn’t flawless, and may have gotten off to a slightly shaky start, but I am thoroughly invested in where Kameron Hurley is going with this. Any fan of truly diverse, truly epic fantasy should be as well – this one has a lot of potential to change the game, and I sincerely hope that it does. Ready or not, fandom…


* I say this out of respect and admiration. Honest. Oh god, now I’m scared.




3 thoughts on “Rewriting the Script: a review of The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

  1. Hurley, in a way a few other writers have tried (hello Kate Elliott!) to do, seems intent on a ruthless interrogation of Epic Fantasy as a genre, and changing the terms of the debate

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