NB: I went to go write the first review in ages and found this one, unpublished from 3 years ago.
Mirror Empire is the first book of Kameron Hurley’s big new epic fantasy series.
Let’s unpack that a bit.
It’s by Kameron Hurley. By this you will know that the worldbuilding will be super inventive and intelligent. It will be gritty. It will address gender issues.
It’s big. Dumping the epub into text file, I find about 160k words. Opening it up in calibre, it says I’m on page 1 of 900 something. By comparison, Scalzi’s Lock In was more like 400-500.
It’s the first book in an epic fantasy series. So you’ll be introduced to both a bunch of POV characters and the world they live in.
Oh, what a world they live in. Or worlds. While this book takes place in one world, I’m pretty sure I got glimpses of 2 others. It’s explicitly stated that there are a whole bunch. As a certain heavenly body approaches, two worlds draw together and the residents of one world start to invade the next.
It’s hard to get more epic than a astrological conjunction threatening to destroy a world, magic is a fact of life, and this is multiple third person point of view, so this is definitely epic fantasy.
However, I don’t think we got a single POV character who was from a farm. There are swords, but not horses. Maybe the bears ate them? We got one character reflecting on whether it’s better to ride dogs or bears. Nothing pseudo-medieval here, either. I don’t think we got the traditional description of being cold and miserable camping in the rain.
With epic fantasy, we usually expect flowery luxurious prose. Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy took that to an extreme, but it’s pretty much a staple of the genre that you’re going to get beautiful descriptions of things and you shouldn’t be in a hurry while you read it. Mirror Empire’s prose breaks that mold. Hurley writes ad copy as a day job and she brings that same tight, punchy approach to her epic fantasy. This world is completely alien and she could easily have made the book three times as long by lovingly describing every meal and outfit as the book went along. Instead she’s editted it down, distilling it into a compact, powerful book that gradually fills in the setting so the story can keep moving quickly without long pauses for exposition.
All in all, it’s a really refreshing change. I don’t want to give up my big poetic epics, but I really enjoyed this tighter, more energetic book.
Mirror Empire is dark. There’s genocide and children accidentally killing children. People huddling behind walls to shelter from wandering trees. It seems like everyone is scarred, injured, or maimed in some way. That said, when I think of grimdark I expect there to be a lot more fascination with those grim aspects. Hurley just has them as part of the world. You notice them and get on with the story. Something that’s a completely horrible killing might just be mentioned in a single sentence - and one without a lot of adjectives. I find it strikes a nice balance. On reflection, I think this is one of the things that helps keeps this from feeling like one of the sanitized epic fantasies of the 90s.
One of the societies in the book divides itself into 5 genders, each with their own pronouns. A POV character has a moment of horror when he realizes a friend might have had their gender assigned to them by society, rather than choosing it for themselves. One especially militant society views men as chattel who are expected to spend all their time making themselves pretty for their spouses.
Hurley’s worldbuilding didn’t stop at magic and plants. In a way she reserved her greatest creativity in trying to imagine completely different societies from the ground up, and a big part of that is making damn sure she didn’t assume traditional (or fantasy trope) gender roles. The closest she comes is a gender flipped super macho society where men end up being completely subjugated.
I’ve got two chief complaints.
The first is that POV shifts with each chapter, and I frequently felt like I didn’t have enough time to get to know a character before it would shift to another character in another place. When it would finally come back to that character I’d sometimes have to pause and try to remind myself who I was dealing with.
Next up is the geography of the world. Or my confusion about it. I felt like Hurley didn’t describe where things were in relation to each other. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I’d had a map handy. There’s a beautiful map, but it’s really hard to flip back and forth to look at the map in an ebook. I debated making a printout of it to refer to, but wound up basically just reading the book with no freaking idea where anything was in relation to anything else. I think this is a challenge that ebooks will have to overcome. Maybe they can stick copies of the map with “you are here” marks between chapters or something.
I wouldn’t say these are nits, but neither one kept me from enjoying the book.
Really, just go buy Mirror Empire. It’s one of my favorite books of the year. It came out at a point when 6 different books I was anxiously waiting for all dropped in the span of 2 weeks. So far they’ve all been great, but this one is probably going to be on my Hugo ballot.