Every Mirror Has Its Dark Half – A Review of The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

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Alternate universes, parallel universes, and every other possible permutation that one can think of that fits into those descriptors: they are interesting. Science has, for years, been trying to prove their existence, and while the math says they are entirely possible, maybe even actually true, there is as yet no objective way to prove their existence – unless some lab or other has already managed to do just that and it’s just taking a while for their discovery to surface in more mainstream news.

The concept has proven to be fertile ground for genre fiction: an entire genre of writing has arisen that makes use of the concept of alternate universes (Harry Turtledove is considered foremost of those writers), while science fiction and fantasy have mined and twisted and shaped the concept according to the whim and pleasure of individual writers to create stories that range from the tawdry and uninteresting to the amazingly complex and fascinating. As someone who enjoys the idea, it can be something of a hit-and-miss thing, when one is looking for new books, but every now and then, one comes across an interpretation of a concept that completely blows all others out of the water, and then some. The most recent book to do this in my personal reading experience is The Mirror Empire, the first in the Worldbreaker Saga by Kameron Hurley.

I first encountered Kameron Hurley’s writing when I read God’s War, the first novel in her Bel Dame Apocrypha series, and was pretty much in love from that point onwards. God’s War, and the two books that followed it in the series, were set in a detailed world and dealt with themes about gender, religion and war, wrapped up in writing that’s easy to read, but built on a kind of world building that’s not the easiest to understand. But I love that sort of thing, love a writer who can entice a reader while throwing down a challenge at the same time, and Hurley’s writing most definitely did not disappoint: the Bel Dame Apocrypha is right up there as one of the finest sci-fi series I’ve ever read, and has become something of a personal yardstick in terms of quality.

So, naturally, when Hurley announced that she was working on a new series, the very first thing I did was scream: scream in delight, in excitement, and sheer pure joy because one of my favourite writers was going to write some more, and I was sure it was going to be magnificent. The second thing I did was to tell those of my friends whom I’d also managed to get into Hurley’s writing via the Bel Dame Apocrypha, that Hurley was writing some more and I had no idea when it would be out, but this was A Thing and we’d all wait for the release to drop, whenever that might be.

Well, it happened: The Mirror Empire is that book, and it has made me a very happy reader indeed.

The Mirror Empire begins with an idyllic scene that ends in blood: a child named Lilia is playing in the (relatively) safe environs of her home village, when it is attacked by vicious raiders bearing living plant weapons and riding enormous bears. Lilia thinks she is certainly going to die, but then her mother saves her at the last minute by opening a portal into a world where the sky isn’t the same colour as the one she knows. Her mother sends her through – but not before marking her and making her promise to come back and find her again. And with that, Lilia is sent through, her memories of her past feeling more to her like a strange dream – until events conspire to remind her that they are not, and that she is more than what she appears to be.

In the meantime, the world hovers on the brink of collapse as a dark star, long thought lost, rises over the horizon. Invaders called the Tai Mora are falling from the sky, thirsty for destruction, and blood – and knowledge. The fate of the world therefore rests on a handful of people: the Saiduan sanisi Maralah and Taigan; the Dhai Akhio and Rohinmey; the Dorinah general Zezili and her husband, Anavha; and on Lilia herself. It is they upon whom the fate of the world rests – whether it survives, or falls under the blades of the Tai Mora.

As someone who’s read Hurley’s writing before, it’s easy to see similarities between The Mirror Empire and the books of the Bel Dame Apocrypha, especially in terms of their themes. The most obvious theme is that of gender: both series play with the idea of reversed gender roles, with matriarchies holding power in the way patriarchies do in the real world.

However, it’s now obvious that Hurley was going gently with her explorations into gender politics in the Bel Dame books, because she takes what she did in those novels, and ups the ante several times over in The Mirror Empire. Women rule entire nations; polyandry is the norm; and even some of the misogynistic language one gets as a woman is found in the novel, except applied to men by women instead of the other way around. A key example of this is in the plot line involving Ahkio, the Dhai man who suddenly rises to the position of Kai, supreme leader of his people, after his sister, Kirana, dies. The clan leaders claim that the Kai may be a man or a woman, but since the Kai has always been a “strong woman”, they don’t trust Ahkio to lead them as a true Kai would. They give all sorts of excuses, of course, but there’s no denying the prejudice against him as a man being the underlying reason. Ahkio’s position is something a lot of women will find very familiar, and it will satisfy a good many of them, I’m sure, to see the shoe on the other foot.

Another excellent – if more discomfiting – example of the above is showcased by Anavha, Zezili’s husband. Dorinah culture exhibits a far more extreme male-female role reversal than Dhai culture, with men being treated like possessions and shaped according to the whims of their wives or mistresses. If they are not married they are kept in mardanas, which function simultaneously as schools where men learn to serve the needs of women, and as houses of prostitution. If a man is lucky he’ll wind up married to a powerful woman, who can then keep him in a luxurious house and treat him well, maybe even love him. If he’s even luckier her sisters, if she has any, will treat him gently too, as in Dorinah culture a woman’s husband can be used as a sexual partner by her sisters, with the woman’s permission. Please note that in all of this, the man has absolutely no say on anything, treated as little better than chattel and not permitted to participate in anything outside of sex and the keeping of a household – if he’s even allowed the latter at all. And this means, of course, that he is susceptible to physical and mental abuse, as well as rape – both marital and non-marital.

To say that the above is painful to read as a woman is, unfortunately, nothing new: such things happen to women all the time, in all parts of the world, both overtly and subtly. Women are familiar with Anavha’s situation and the ways he tries to deal with it. Men, however, might not react so well – certainly one reviewer I encountered bemoaned the lack of “strong male characters”, citing Anavha as an especially egregious example. To this, I must admit, I laughed. Of course a man would think that way, I said to myself. Of course they would find fault in “a lack of strong male characters,” completely, utterly blind to what Hurley was trying to prove in writing things the way she did: that women always get the short end of the stick, whether in genre fiction or in real life.

Of course, Hurley doesn’t want the role reversal portrayed in the book to happen in real life – another mistake some reviewers have made (and once again proving how short-sighted they are). She writes the role reversal to show, in especially stark relief, what men do to women in both genre fiction and in real life, because to portray it in the traditional manner would be too subtle – or rather, too commonplace – to make any effect on any readers with similar notions. This is especially true in the way she writes Ahkio. The aforementioned reviewer may have complained that there are no “strong” male characters, but that only means he has only one definition of strength: probably the stereotypical, heroic, he-man definition of it. Ahkio is certainly not that kind of strong: that’s more Zezili’s thing. But Ahkio’s strength is one women will recognise: the ability to get through situations quietly and efficiently; making the decision to give up love and family in service of the greater good; learning to confront abusers and manipulators to take a stand for one’s own beliefs. These are things any woman would consider as markers of strength, and Ahkio has them all, and in spades, at that. As for Anavha, only subsequent books will tell, because he hasn’t been fully developed as a character yet, but I’m certain Hurley’s got big plans for him, too.

Another interesting theme that Hurley plays with in the novel is the multiplicity of gender identities and the equally multiple approaches towards love and sex. There are – count them – six different gender identities in the novel: female passive, female aggressive, male passive, male aggressive, ataisa (an intersex category), and an unnamed one for people who can literally shift between biologically male and biologically female. While questions about gender identities and different kinds of sexuality were also explored in the Bel Dame Apocrypha, it was done subtly. In The Mirror Empire, Hurley goes well above and beyond what she did in the Bel Dame Apocrypha books, building the six genders (well, five, primarily; the sixth is currently limited to just one character who feels rather conflicted about it) right into the fabric of the world. There’s mention made of different speech modalities depending on which gender identity one identifies with, as well as specific pronouns for each one – and it’s implied there’s no such thing as a “fixed” gender identity, either. In that regard, it reminds me a whole lot of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which also played with gender identities and gendered language, though not to the same scale as Hurley does in The Mirror Empire.

As for sexualities, that’s interesting too, as most everyone appears to be, at the baseline, bisexual, though there also appears to be a lot of sliding into and exploring various other modes of sexuality throughout the course of the story. Notably, though, no one is chastised for their wish to explore, except where affections can put political games at risk, or where there is a distinct power imbalance – and in such cases, it’s the question of consent that becomes paramount. Sexuality itself, however it is expressed, is not questioned nor punished, so long as it is informed and consensual. Monogamy is a rarity, and while heterosexuality is not unheard of, it is a rare beast, too. This has, of course, caused some noise in certain quarters questioning the believability of such a world, but such bigoted statements only emphasise the need for writing like Hurley’s.

Now that I speak of the characters, they are an interesting bunch, though they are not quite well-drawn just yet. Of them all, it appears only Akhio gets much development, with most of the characters only really growing toward the end of the novel. However, I’m willing to wait for greater character development further down the line; after all, this is just the first book in a series. These things can take time, like they did in Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy, where the characters only really got a lot of development in the second book, since the first book was mostly devoted to world building. Since most of the setup and world building for the entire series takes place in this book, I’m willing to wait and see until the second to see the characters really, truly grow.

Speaking of world building, what Hurley does in The Mirror Empire is almost the same as what she did in the Bel Dame Apocrypha: throw the reader into the world, and give them just enough to keep them afloat and to help them pick their way through the world on their own. To be sure, she sets the stage most enticingly: I was hooked on this world from the moment she mentioned “semi-sentient walking trees” in the prologue. But as for all the rest of it, the hows and whys and wherefores – well, that’s up to the reader to figure out on their own. Some reviewers have complained about this, but I, for my part, absolutely love it, and is one of the reasons why I enjoy Hurley’s writing so much. It’s not easy reading: I got turned around a couple of times when trying to figure out which events were taking place where, and who was doing what, but the beauty of a book is that it’s easy to flip back a few pages and reread something in order to better comprehend it.

And the payoff is so, so very worth the time it took going back every so often to make sure I’d completely understood what had just happened. The world of The Mirror Empire is rich, deep, and fascinating. I really like the notion of vicious, semi-sentient plant life as being a very real danger people have to contend with: as someone who comes from a tropical country, I’m very familiar with how plant life can run riot and become dangerous, even if it isn’t sentient and the trees are very much rooted to the ground. The system of magic is pretty easy to understand, and makes for some very spectacular (and very bloody) fight scenes. I’m especially fond of the idea of “living” weapons and habitations: items and buildings created by folk called tirajistas, who can shape and bend plant life to their will. I also like how the living weapons are bonded to their wielders, making it difficult for anyone besides that person to use them.

Overall, The Mirror Empire is an explosive, and bloody, start to what promises to be a spectacular new story. Hurley explores themes about gender, sexuality, and power, and sets it all up in a world where enemies from another world fall from the sky, and where one is more apt to be eaten by trees, or giant underground pitcher plants, than by bears. Not all the characters are fully developed quite just yet, and the plot itself is a touch slow, but this is just the first book in a series – a very promising series, if this book is anything to go by. I’m almost certain that everything will really pick up speed by the second book – or at least, I hope that’s the case. But I trust Hurley’s writing skills, and I’m quite sure she won’t let her readers down.

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