The Mirror Empire had an absolutely amazing beginning, one of the best opening chapters I've read in a very long time, and just kind of steamrolled ahead from there.
What Kameron Hurley has crafted here in the first book of The Worldbreaker Saga is definitely different, even challenging in places (I found myself fighting to catch up and find my place more than once in the narrative), but what I took away most is the feeling of being completely awed by the depth of her imagination. This is an epic fantasy in the truest sense of the term, with some really stunning ideas on gender, roles, and relationships; all set within a naturally hostile, almost post-apocalyptic environment; and framed by an intricate theory of mirror worlds and alternate realities.
Let me break it down a little bit, and talk about each of those points above. First of all, I want to touch on the challenging nature of the narrative. Here we have a new world to understand that's different than anything we've read before. We have multiple races and societies, with twisted/altered mirror counterparts, and a complete subversion of gender and gender roles. Hurley really just drops all of this on the reader, and doesn't bother with any sort of info-dumps or hand-holding. The learning curve is immediate and immense, and she layers on new challenges throughout. The ideas are so fascinating, though, you can't help but eagerly anticipate the next piece of the puzzle. The challenge never gets frustrating or tiresome, and even if you need to flip back and reread a few sections as you go, there is an ultimate payoff for that effort.
As for the world-building, it's what immediately differentiates the novel, right from that opening chapter. Here we have carnivorous, overbearing, murderous plants and trees that have to be constantly fought back with sword, fire, and salting of the earth. The concept of the bone trees alone, incorporating the splintered bones of their victims into a sort of impenetrable bark, is as stunning as it is creepy. Even the buildings of Hurley's world are a product of that environment, with a clear distinction between heathen constructions of stone, and more enlightened halls of living, breathing, ever-growing flora. Above that world of eco-horrors is a series of moons in the sky, orbiting the world in uncertain cycles of years or even centuries, and bestowing magical talents upon those who are able to draw upon each. Beneath those moons, carving out their own place in the world, are villages and temples that are almost idyllic, and easily the most familiar representations of the genre.
I could write for days and not even begin to explain what Hurley has done with gender and gender roles here, but it's something worth exploring and experiencing. For the most part, this is a world of matriarchal societies, with women taking on the roles of rulers, warriors, and more. That, however, is a gross over-simplification. There are as many as six genders in the worlds of The Mirror Empire, depending upon which society we're talking about. There are assertive males and females, passive males and females, those who are ungendered, and a rare few who can shift and flow between genders. Just to confuse matters further, relationships here are multi-layered and dynamic, with polyamorous marriages involving multiple husbands and wives the norm, and sexual orientations within those marriages just as fluid. There are a few deliberately shocking moments, but they are purely for narrative effect - there's no heavy-handed commentary here about feminism, love, tolerance, or anything of the like, despite what you might expect.
As for the mirror worlds themselves, they are both the most fascinating and most complex element of the tale. The idea of parallel worlds is hardly new, and neither is the idea of marauding armies marching from one world to another. However, what's unique about Hurley's tale is the way in which she plays with the idea of alternate worlds, demonstrating how differently each has evolved or progressed as a result of decisions or events in the past. What's more, she has established her worlds in such a way that each individuals has a mirror world counterpart, with whom they cannot coexist. So, you not only get the idea of parallel worlds and alternate histories, but doppelgangers who have usurped their counterparts and insinuated themselves into other worlds, twisting empires into driving towards their own defeat.
The story itself does falter a bit under the weight of its own imagination early in the second half, but Hurley pulls things back into order with a series of climaxes that begin driving the tale towards a concluding clash of cultures and societies. The Mirror Empire is ambitious, awesome, imaginative, and exhausting in equal measure. There is a lot of novelty to it, yes, but it's testament to Hurley's talent that the novelty never wears, and the imagination never ceases to amaze. It's by no means a light read or a quick one, but precisely the kind of story you don't mind settling down to understand and appreciate.
Paperback, 539 pages
Expected publication: September 4th 2014 by Angry Robot