I have had a book sitting in my To read pile for a long while. It was The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley. I had read God’s War and really loved it and picked up this book when it was released but there were several other books that I picked up at the same time. It languished in the pile and kept getting moved to the bottom. I did a little organizing and took some time to think about why I had not read it yet. I realized that I was hesitant when it came to the idea of Grim Dark. I didn’t know if it was something I wanted to delve into especially as I was working in Child Protective Services when I picked up the book. There is only so much secondary trauma that I can take. I have recently switched jobs and at a place where grim dark will add more to my plate. So, I added the book to my Audible account and started listening to it while worked out and ran.
Spoiler warnings on.
I loved Mirror Empire. It presents a world that is fascinating and yet alien. It hits on the fantasy tropes for there is magic and mystery abound without every utilizing the standard fantasy tropes. In Mirror Empire, there are no elves or dwarves. There are priests but not in the fashion that one is used too. Magic is present but the wand waving and finger-twiddling are are eschewed for a more astrological bent.
I was hooked from the first chapter. In a style similar to God’s War, Kameron Hurley creates a world that is both alien and understandable. The first chapter introduces Lilia. She is a young girl whom if following in the footsteps of her mother. She works with her mother learning the ways for herbs, poultices, the wilderness, and blood magic. Lilia is knowledgeable in all these things and yet still a child that plays on a rock constantly trying to fly. It is through her eyes that we first catch a glimpse of this strange world. A world where trees walk, vines and plants are constantly trying to find a way in to the village to feast upon the people. A world where blood gives a person a level of control over the world around them.
This first chapter provides excellent foreshadowing of the things to come in Mirror Empire. Lilia’s village comes under attack from strange outsiders. Lilia runs to the village to see what she can do to help but is to late. The invaders have set the place on fire. Lilia’s mother comes to the rescue and takes her hand and the run. It is not far enough though and Lilia is forced to hide while her mother confronts the marauders. Lilia is taken from her hiding place and pushed through a rift between worlds. She stands and watches in horror as her mother is struck down and the surviving invader comes for her, only to be blocked by some invisible barrier in the gate. And the story is begun in blood, death, and grief.
Kameron Hurley has created a world that is fascinating. The world is recovering from a devastating war from over two thousand years ago. The semi-sentient plants that plague the people of the world are just one of the remnants of this conflict. The world is built on a system that is different from our own. Women are the movers and shakers of these worlds and the me are the ones that must struggle for respect. It is a world where relationships are agreements and marriages are between multiple men and women. Queer relationships are part and parcel of the world and are accepted as normal. There are societies where there are more than two genders and room for more than three. Hurley has created a world with a society that requires consent before touching and makes it real.
The characters Hurley creates are human despite the fantasy elements of the world. She avoids the standard characters that have minor character quirks and embraces the flaws that are present within all of us. There are no people here without flaws which makes the people met in the book both difficult to love but no less fascinating to follow. In particular, Zezili captures this for me. Zezili is the quintessential powerful women of her time. Through a bit of luck, she escaped slavery and has risen to a place of power in the army of her empire. She has a husband that belongs to her. His beauty and her ownership of such a trophy elevates her social standing even further. And yet, despite this abhorrent idea of ownership and her abusive nature, she truly loves him. It is a twisted type of thing but it is love. It just takes a while for this to become apparent.
The magic and cosmology of the book are also interesting.
Hurley plays with idea of multiple realities. There are worlds that sit adjacent to one another and and share many similarities. Each person exists on each world which hampers the individuals movement between worlds. If you still exist on the other world, you can not crossover. This simple fact sets up the political machinations simmer under the surface in beginnings of this series. There are other worlds that are not similar to the others and these denizens are not so friendly to those of the other worlds. How these other worlds come into play is one of the things I look forward to learning in the series.
I mentioned earlier that the magic of this world is tied to astrological ideas but I think that is not the simplest explanation. The world has satellites that orbit the planet on erratic patterns. The people are able to predict their rise and fall for most of them with some ease. There are Para, Zini, Sina, and Tira which are predictable. Oma, the dark satellite, has not been seen in over 2000 years and it’s rising is something conjectured at the opening of The Mirror Empire. Each satellite provides power to the gifted to control of some force of nature. When their satellite is ascendant, they are at full power. When their satellite is gone from the sky, only the most sensitive can call on a fraction of their ability. I like this idea as the source of magic and how it drives the various societies to view the gifted and treat them. It is a very organic magic system that works well both for simple folk in the wilderness to those cloistered in temples. I look forward to learning more abut the inner workings of the gifted and their connections to these celestial bodies.
The Mirror Empire was a great but difficult read. These are people that well rounded and fully fleshed. They make horrible decisions and do horrible things to one another. They struggle to make the right decisions despite their own failings and the results go from spectacular to gut wrenching. The world isn’t spoon-fed to you and woe to you if you can’t keep up. Definitely a four bear paws out of four read and a wonderful introduction to the grim dark corner of the genre as well a welcome place to find queerness as part and parcel of the world with no apologies asked for and none needed.