Kameron Hurley, one of the lucky writers to land on her feet following the implosion of Night Shade Books in 2013, returns with an electrifying and career-defining fourth novel in The Mirror Empire. It is, on the one hand, very much cut from the currently fashionable cloth of the grimdark fantasy tapestry. It tells of a world wracked by war, political upheaval, slave rebellion, ethnic cleansing and genocide. But there the similarities end, as Hurley forcefully flips every genre trope in her sights to create a work simply exploding with a kind of anarchic, creative ferocity. This is not your grandad’s epic fantasy.
The world of Raisa is orbited by three satellites, from which trained magic users draw their power. But the ascendance of a dominant “dark star” in its heavens, Oma, signals a time of cataclysm, when the thin skein between parallel realities can be breached, and invading forces from other worlds create wrack and ruin. As Oma is ascending once again, Raisa faces an invasion like none ever seen before. An invasion by their own, alternate-universe counterparts. But no one from the invading universe can actually enter Raisa while their counterpart still lives, and a team of assassins has been sent over to deal with certain key figures, in order to smooth the way for the invasion to proceed.
We follow no fewer than five viewpoint characters whose lives are swept up in the tumult. Lilia is a young girl who crossed over into Raisa as a child, from the world whose invading armies — a militarist version of the pacifist Dhai race native to Raisa — are now spilling over. Bearing a secret gift from her mother, a blood witch whose magic allowed her to create and control the rifts between universes, Lilia has no real concept of the power she has been granted, and it could well be her power alone on which the fate of Raisa hangs.
Ahkio is the younger brother of the leader of the Dhai people, and when she dies under suspicious circumstances, he inherits her leadership despite being unsuited for the task (he’s male, and wants only a simple, domestic life free from politics). He now has to face not only the incoming storm, as it were, but treachery from within his own court and rival clans among the Dhai. Rohinmey is a young novice who dreams of a life of adventure, but gets far more than he bargained for when Ahkio entrusts him with some clandestine tasks. Reality will bite much harder than Roh was ever expecting, and his rudimentary magical training may not be up to the task of helping him survive it.
We come now to two of the most compelling characters. Taigan is a genderfluid assassin (her body actually undergoes a cyclical, physical sex change) from the Saiduan continent to the north, who have been the first to feel the destructive might of the invaders. The Saiduan have a history of brutalizing the Dhai, but now they need the help of Dhai scholars to decipher ancient manuscripts that may hold secrets to thwarting the invaders. And finally, Zezili is a mixed-race general leading the armies of the matriarchal, and extremely savage, Dorinah empire. Finding herself tasked by her empress with a mission to exterminate outright Dorinah’s entire population of Dhai slaves, events both in her military and personal life will cause her to question her loyalties and her very grasp of life itself.
All of this would be enough, on its own, to root any exciting epic fantasy series upon a rock solid conceptual foundation. But Kameron Hurley’s world building goes a step further. In addition to such “high coolness quotient” treats as sentient, carnivorous trees and warriors who charge into battle riding bears, Hurley has paid particular attention to her cultures. The Dhai, perhaps in reaction to a long history on the receiving end of slavery and oppression, form large, polyamorous family units with multiple spouses. I don’t think anyone isn’t bisexual. And while The Mirror Empire is a full-on work of feminist epic fantasy, Hurley doesn’t shrink from portraying the warrior women of Dorinah as brutal, thuggish and sexually violent as anyone who ever rode with Attila the Hun.
Indeed, if anything will prompt discussion of this novel, it will be its gender politics, which are unapologetically provocative and intended expressly to force a rethinking of the roles fantasy readers have no doubt unthinkingly accepted, through so many years of seeing books adorned with Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta covers in which busty slave hotties hang on the muscular quadriceps of beefy swordsmen.
Zezili is, superficially, just a gender-swapped version of this archetypal sword and sorcery musclehead. But in Hurley’s careful hands, she is allowed a level of human dimension that obliges us to think a little more deeply about our own ingrained gender biases as readers. Zezili has a trophy husband, a mincing, almost absurdly feminized weakling named Anavha, towards whom she displays a domineering physical possessiveness and control that, in her way of looking at things, equates to love. Anavha clings to Zezili, but only out of the kind of bond that a psychologically pummeled abuse victim has for their abuser. Intriguingly, Hurley’s portrayals of both Zezili and Anavha are full of a greater understanding and compassion towards both of them than they have for each other. Like some of the less morally sound characters in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire — say, Jaime or Tyrion Lannister — Zezili’s repellent personality traits are actually what gives her character humanity. She, like her husband, is a product of her culture, and she behaves as you might expect, according to her privilege. But if you find yourself wincing at some of the rough trade Anavha is subjected to, well… that’s kind of the point.
I suppose it’s a bit too easy to focus on what is admittedly only one facet of a richly multifaceted story, but that is actually a testament to how well Kameron Hurley has succeeded at her ambitions. There is so much to talk about in The Mirror Empire — whether you stick to the complexities and layers of its unfolding plot, or delve into its ideas about family and sexuality and human intimacy — and it’s Hurley’s staunch insistence on following her own drumbeat that has resulted in such a rewarding reading experience. I could maybe touch on its minor flaws — a tendency towards overlength and excessive detail, some dry stretches that break the flow, some confusing nomenclature. But unless you’re put off by the grim darkness of grimdark on principle (and in fairness, many readers are), the book’s multitude of creative virtues so far outweigh its vices that The Mirror Empire does, in the end, qualify as the sort of book that makes a writer’s name.