In recent years, “grimdark” has become a popular buzzword when describing certain kinds of fantasy and science fiction. The term originated in the Warhammer 40,000 science fiction setting, and has since come to mean any story (but particularly fantasy stories) wherein there is no clear right or wrong; where the protagonists do not fit neatly into the traditional heroic role; and where doing “the right thing” or being “a good person” does not necessarily lead to a “happy ending” – indeed, the notion of a “happy ending” does not exist. Grimdark fantasy does not often centre around an Epic Quest or a Chosen Hero: it is specifically built to reject or invert such tropes as a response to the Tolkien-inspired narratives that dominated fantasy prior to grimdark’s appearance as a genre. Instead, grimdark fantasy places heavier emphasis on political manoeuvring and a notion of “realistically portraying” a world in the midst of war or any kind of socio-political crisis.
Currently, the most famous and most popular writer of grimdark fantasy is George R.R. Martin, whose A Song of Ice and Fire pretty much encompasses all the above qualities ascribed to grimdark: none of the protagonists might be called a truly good person; there are enough political games to go around and then some; and readers are universally certain that, whatever the endgame, it is not going to be happy. In the wake of Martin’s series other writers have come to the fore: Joe Abercrombie (The First Law trilogy and other associated books) and Mark Lawrence (The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War trilogies) both enjoy enormous popularity, as do the tag-team of Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont (the Malazan books).
However, it is fairly easy to note that not a lot of women have been associated with the genre. Fortunately, that is changing, as more female writers are entering the field. One of the most notable writers is Kameron Hurley, who first showed her skill at writing grimdark in her science fiction trilogy The Bel Dame Apocrypha, otherwise known as the God’s War trilogy. Then, in 2014, she turned her hand to fantasy, and published The Mirror Empire, the first in the Worldbreaker Saga series. Set in a world where the plant-life is carnivorous and magical power is determined by the rising and setting of particular satellites, The Mirror Empire laid down the groundwork for what promised to be a harsher, harder, and more heartbreaking story in the future books – and the sequel, Empire Ascendant, has definitely delivered.
Empire Ascendant is set almost immediately after the events of The Mirror Empire. As the Tai Mora push their largest force yet through the gates between the worlds, the other characters must deal with the consequences of their previous actions. Lilia must take responsibility for playing Faith Ahya in order to force Liona Stronghold to accept the refugees she led out of Dorinah. Ahkio and Maralah must lead their people through the coming war against the Tai Mora, while struggling to hold whatever power they’ve managed to wield and consolidate up until this point. Rohinmey fights against the idyllic fate predicted for him at his birth, only to find that doing so might not be what he wanted after all. Zezili must find a new way of dealing with her knowledge regarding the Tai Mora. Finally, Anavha wants to go back to Zezili, but in doing so he finds himself learning truths he would much rather not have known – and making choices he did not realise he could.
In many ways, the real plot begins with this book, not the first. Though The Mirror Empire had an enjoyable storyline all its own, most of it served to introduce the primary characters, and then position them properly for the events of Empire Ascendant. This is not, of course, a bad thing: The Mirror Empire serves to get the reader settled into Hurley’s somewhat-confusing world, so that by the time things start to really get moving in Empire Ascendant, the reader will not be overly confused by the number of characters and places that crop up.
Despite this, though, the reader can still get a little lost. Hurley is a member of what I like to call the “sink or swim” school of world-building: writers who build the world through plot events, and through the characters themselves via their experiences and the decisions they make (or do not make, as the case may be). This minimises the need for lengthy exposition, which ensures that the pace of the novel doesn’t slow down too much, and the plot keeps moving. However, this does mean that the reader must do their best to keep up, which can mean going back to reread a chapter or a section of a chapter if they are confused by something in the story. I personally do not think this is a bad thing – in fact, I thoroughly enjoy it, so long as the writer is capable of managing it well, and I truly believe Hurley can and does so.
Still, some reviewers have complained that the sheer number of new characters and plot movements introduced in Empire Ascendant was too confusing for their tastes. This is understandable: though Hurley has selected a handful of point-of-view characters that do most of the narrating, there are times when characters switch midstream in a chapter, or disappear for vast lengths of time before coming back again. This is not much of a problem if the reader is coming straight from The Mirror Empire into Empire Ascendant because many of the characters and plotlines will still be fresh in their memory, but it can be difficult for readers who read The Mirror Empire some time ago and are only picking up Empire Ascendant now.
Now that I mention the characters, Empire Ascendant is all about fleshing them out and developing them into well-rounded, realistic characters. Lilia, in particular, grows significantly in this novel, with emphasis on what she needs to do versus what she wants to do, given her newfound influence amongst the Dhai. To start with, she is very conscious of her newfound influence and power, and what could happen if she were to make some grave misstep in the exercise of either:
Lilia did not believe in miracles outside of history books, but she was beginning to believe in her own power, and that was a more frightening thing to believe in.
This thread of doubt continues throughout her storyline, but what is interesting about it is that she uses her influence even if she, herself, does not believe in it. However, this has the consequence of leading her into a dark, downward spiral as she begins to lose control of who and what she is. As Lilia’s storyline progresses she begins to realise that, despite all the heroic and noble stories about Faith Ahya, she must sacrifice her own humanity in order to do what must be done – to do as Faith Ahya would probably have done:
Now it was too late. There was no turning back. Someone had to fight the monsters.
Who better than a monster?
Lilia is not the only one who enters a downward spiral in the course of this novel: all the characters do so, in their own ways. Rohinmey’s journey, in particular, is heartbreaking. Throughout The Mirror Empire he remained mostly as he was: a ray of light as the darkness settled in. In Empire Ascendant, however, he is finally broken, which happens when the reader encounters the following quote:
He had learned something of hierarchy now, and power. There were many kinds of power.
I won’t go into the specific circumstances of Roh’s storyline, because doing so would spoil a good chunk of the novel, but suffice to say that he is perfect proof that no one is going to come out of this series intact. All the characters will either be dead by the end, or so thoroughly broken that they might as well be. This is why the series might reasonably be called “grimdark”: there are no happy endings for anyone, even the ones who thought they were fated to have one.
As for the plot itself, it is a real treat to read because of how it seems to spring out of the actions and decisions of the primary characters, and not so much from any sort of deus ex machina. Certainly, there are some coincidences and occasional “right place, right time” moments, but they are few and far between, and occur for minor (or at least, seemingly minor) plot points. Most of the time, the reader can trace a plot event to a decision a character made at an earlier point in the novel, or even to one made all the way back in The Mirror Empire. This ensures that both novels are tied together, and no action or decision, no matter how thoughtless or minor it might seem at first, goes without consequences. This shows how carefully Hurley has plotted her story, and I am extremely appreciative of such care. It means that, no matter what happens going forward, everything important will happen because something else led up to it. This applies even to plot twists: in particular, one that happens at the end of Chapter 37, which I shall not describe due to spoilers, but one which I enjoyed thoroughly, and suspect other readers might enjoy, too.
Overall, Empire Ascendant is a worthy sequel to The Mirror Empire, one that truly expands the plot and builds the characters, pushing both forward. Some readers might find it necessary to reread the first book in order to refresh their memories, but the extra effort is very much worth it. All readers can be certain of one item, though: That nothing but death and bloodshed lay ahead; it is only a matter of time until everything well and truly breaks. I look forward to reading of that breaking, and getting my heart broken along the way.