Too Many Voices: Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley

Empire Ascendant is Kameron Hurley’s fifth novel. The second volume of her epic fantasy “Worldbreaker Saga” from Angry Robot Books, it follows last year’s The Mirror Empire, and builds upon the grim and terrible events of that novel to depict a world facing cataclysmic events. The invading Tai Mora have suffered a minor setback, but their legions still pour through rents in the world. The country of Saiduan has already been torn apart. Now the Tai Mora are pouring into Dorinah and the land of the Dhai—and worse is yet to come, because the dark star Oma is not yet fully risen.

To be honest, I wanted to enjoy Empire Ascendant more than I did.

Like The Mirror Empire, it’s ambitious. Like The Mirror Empire, it’s also a bit of a mess—though, fortunately, rather less of a mess than The Mirror Empire‘s first third. The sheer number of viewpoint characters makes it rather difficult to keep track of who’s who, where they are, and what they’re doing, but Empire Ascendant at least doesn’t have the additional hurdle of needing to introduce the world of the story as well.

Empire Ascendant was never going to be the book of my heart. It has much to recommend it, in the form of fascinating worldbuilding, very readable prose, and a thriller’s approach to pacing. Hurley, too, embraces the opportunity to show a vast world with multiple cultures and multiple approaches to gender and sexuality, from Dorinah’s repressive matriarchy to the misogynistic king of Tordin, hierarchical Saiduan with its three genders, and anarchic Dhai with multiple pronouns and multiple configurations of family. There are carnivorous plants, satellites whose waxing and waning governs magical power, and some really weird shit going down with parallel worlds. Many—most—of the characters are sympathetic terrible people doing and/or suffering terrible things in various configurations!

But my appreciation for Hurley’s imagination and technique falls apart when I look back on the novel. I have no idea, now I’ve come to the end, of what the point is. Or what the overall narrative arc aims toward. Yes, excellent, blow things up! Kill off some viewpoint characters! But with this many characters, the reader doesn’t really spend enough time with any one in particular to find them very interesting in their own right: the voice for each individual viewpoint doesn’t continue long enough to stand out as especially distinctive, and there’s no real opportunity for extensive character development.

There are many separate and exciting incidents—people lose limbs! fortresses are torn down! things are set on fire and/or blown up! people flee across wastelands! torture and death takes place! people are imprisoned and escape!—but, I confess, I have very little sense of how they all fit together. I think the invading Tai Mora mean to save themselves from the incipient destruction of their own world by doing something with Ancient Stuff in the temples of the Dhai in the world they’re invading, and I think there’s something batshit dangerous going on with the Empress of Dorinah and the rising of the dark star—but how everything else ties together?

My time is limited. Please explain to me why I should be caring that you are cutting off more limbs, thank you?

It turns out that Empire Ascendant is the kind of book I really rather enjoy while reading it. (Though heaven knows it seems like the kind of book I should hate: I’m really not a fan of terrible people doing terrible things in literature, but Hurley manages to convince me to go along with her characters for the ride anyway.) But afterwards, when I think about it, it gets under my skin in an irritating fashion. I’m a picky reader. I want more from a narrative than this novel ended up giving me: it’s trying to do (and be) many things, and I’m not sure it pulls them off.

I have a feeling that as a whole, I’m going to look on The Worldbreaker Saga as an ambitious failure. Certainly Empire Ascendant, while ambitious, doesn’t pass my threshold for an ambitious success.

Empire Ascendant is available from Angry Robot.

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

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