Worlds are colliding. The fabric of time and space is being torn apart and reknit into a mirror that reflects the very worst. A young girl dreams of finding her mother. A warrior questions her loyalties and her empress. A man has no choice but to take over his sister’s role and be a leader. Thousands of the weakest race are mercilessly slaughtered by those who could offer them protection. The satellites rise and fall in the sky, bringing and taking away the powers of those connected to them. There is magic in blood, danger in plants, threats from wild beasts and fear in every breath.
Immense amounts of work has gone into Kameron Hurley’s latest novel, The Mirror Empire. After the award-winning God’s War and the rest of The Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy, Hurley has returned with a book that pushes at the boundaries of traditional epic fantasies even more than before—she is nothing if not ambitious. Even if the new area she discovers by stretching and reshaping fantasy is not always totally refined, it is always refreshing, intelligent and challenging.
There is no sense of familiarity about the worlds Hurley has created for her new Worldbreaker Saga, no sense of comfort or ease—the plants, the animals, the class systems, the family structures, the multi-gendered society, the astrological details, even the board games and the very skies are thoughtfully, provocatively created in an in immensely crafted (and never info-dumped) worldbuilding feat.
A work of this ambition and complexity can not have come easily. How long did it take to form, with all it’s detailing—the ecosystem, the economic structure, the mechanics of war—each aspect so thoroughly picked apart, subverted and recreated anew? “I’ve been writing in a world with geography similar to this since I was twelve or so, and I wrote an early version of something resembling the book ten years ago,” says Hurley. “But the fact is that we aren’t always technically ready to write our most ambitious work right out of the gate…Just because you think up a dark kernel of a swell idea doesn’t mean you have the technical skill to pull it off, and this book required a very long apprenticeship and a great deal of editing and feedback from a variety of folks to make it work. My agent and I workshopped this book for months before it went on submission, and my editor at Angry Robot gave me a very sobering reality check with her structural edit that gave me the adrenaline spike I needed to finally get the book to where it needed to be.”
Hurley’s previous novels in the Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy worked together some complicated ideas to do with religion, race, war—as does The Mirror Empire, though perhaps in further, more complex ways. Working together so many larger themes seems as important to Hurley as the plot is. There are times when I wondered if the plot held together as securely as the worldbuilding did, but ultimately there is a balance between the two, which is no mean feat, considering neither aspect is simple or lazy in any way. Hurley says The Mirror Empire is the “most intricately plotted book” she’s ever written—The Bel Dame Apocrypha books having “had fairly simple go get so-and-so’s head type of plots—they were slash and hack mercenaries,” and the books followed a more traditional quest fantasy plot, because, as Hurley admits, the “overarching plots themselves weren’t as interesting to me as the internal character arcs—what the overall plot reveals about the characters, and the world, was far more interesting to me that who was killing whom over what.”
But that The Mirror Empire has a far more challenging plot, should be no surprise coming from a writer who is constantly refusing to accept the ‘norm’ and is thoroughly, successfully questioning the status quo of epic fantasy fiction. It’s clear that Hurley had recognised the need for her to be better at pacing and at creating a complicated plot, while maintaining her strong grip on worldbuilding and her nuanced characters. “I can tell you now,” she says, “after trying to achieve all that in a single book, that it’s really, really hard to do all those things at once. But I do love a good challenge. If I’m not improving as a writer, what’s the point?”
The idea of a matriarchal society is not new to Hurley, of course. Hurley has named Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain’s seminal SF classic short story from 1905, Sultana’s Dream as a strong influence on her work, and its presence can be felt in The Mirror Empire too. But where Sultana’s Dream flipped the patriarchal norm, The Mirror Empire does more—it rejects the notion of gender as binary—gender is even amorphous and fluctuating for some. Of particular interest to me is the use of the word ‘mardana’, which is a Persian and Urdu word meaning manly or (in this instance) a space for men only, often the outer chambers of where men and male guests were roomed. In The Mirror Empire’s world the mardana isn’t a space where men sit around being macho and making Very Important Decisions, but where men are trained to be used for sex by the women they will serve, and nothing else. This is a great little subversion, though I’m not certain why a Persian/Urdu term is specifically used—there are some South Asian-sounding names in The Mirror Empire but it isn’t set in a quasi-Islamic society as God’s War was, for instance. But again, perhaps that’s just Hurley’s nod to Sultana’s Dream in which men are placed in the zenana and not trusted to do any important work?
Hurley is becoming a prominent voice in all this current talk of Grimdark, too. I didn’t personally find the individual deaths as worrying as the genocide (more on that later), but many readers may well flinch—and quite often. Hurley pointed out to me that the deaths in her books are probably right on par with most Grimdark, adding, “My violence, perhaps, is more indiscriminate than many Grimdark books. I understand that it’s not all soldiers and sex workers who die horribly (gruesomely, the lives of people in these professions are often coded as less human, or as acceptable casualties, in many cultures). In my books, children die, old people die, young people die.” Yes Hurley’s worlds are brutal, dark and terrifying but then so is yours and mine. Grimdark isn’t just a genre—it’s become reality for a great many of us.
“Just as in real life, when there is a horrible conflict in my books, horrible things happen to everyone,” she says. “My academic background is in history, particularly the history of resistance movements and war generally, and I’ve seen some of the worst that people can and have done to each other—so I see what I write as relatively tame, by comparison. Nothing we can make up is as horrific as the things people have actually done, and are doing, to people in real life.” Strange as it may seem to say this, I did find myself re-reading some of the violence because it was written so evocatively, so earthily. For instance, a woman is ferociously attacked and the ‘weapon crushed [her] collarbone. Her body crumpled; a mangled succulent’. Or in the description of an organic weapon: ‘the branch awakened; the hilt elongated and snapped around her wrist twice, binding her fate to the weapon’s. She watched blood weep from the branch, gather at its end, and fall to the stones. The weapon sang to her, the voices of hungry ghosts’. It’s really quite poetic. Ruthless, but poetic.
But for me, The Mirror Empire isn’t horrific because of the way characters are killed off, but because it makes you take a harder, starker look at war and genocide. Two worlds are colliding, their borders tearing open like ‘something from a fantastic nightmare.’ One race/world is systematically wiping out another in order to replace it. When Hurley writes about the chilling, calculated slaughter of the half-starved down-trodden Dhais in broken down settlements, it’s easy to forget that this is indeed fantasy. But what is fantasy if not metaphor? And Hurley isn’t afraid to show you the dirt of the world, the worst, the least humane of humanity.
There will be plenty of mixed opinions about The Mirror Empire, of that I am certain—a book that challenges its reader in so many ways will always have mixed reviews. But I doubt anyone will deny the imagination and energy that has gone into creating a fantasy that is so unlike what the tradition insists on maintaining. Kameron Hurley simply refuses to take the easier, lazier way out of anything—that’s just not her style and in doing so, she’s created a book that will be much talked about. ‘If you fed enough blood to a thing’, says one of Hurley’s blood-magic witches, ‘it would do all you asked.’ Hurley has fed The Mirror Empire her blood, that much is clear.
The Mirror Empire publishes Aug 26th in the US and Sept 4th in the UK by Angry Robot.
Read an excerpt from the novel here on Tor.com, and listen to the Rocket Talk podcast episode featuring Kameron Hurley and Liz Bourke.