It’s good to see speculative fiction authors playing with gender as a concept within their work. It’s been far too long that The Left Hand of Darkness has been the touchstone for fiction on that topic.
And if the way in which The Mirror Empire explores concepts of gender, gender expression and sexuality were the main thing this book offered I’d still give it a heart-felt recommendation based on that alone.
But it does so much more. And as a result, Kameron Hurley has not just written an eminently recommendable book; she’s also set a very high bar for other books I read this year to reach.
So what is The Mirror Empire? Set in at least two iterations of a world where people draw power from arcane satellites, it’s a fantasy novel full of enough recognizable tropes to allow a reader to feel comfortable. But watch out, it’s a trap! Hurley seems to delight in balancing these tropes with subversions of themselves.
The utopian semi-pacifists who comprise half of the protagonists of the story? They might also be the villains. The genocidal general, seemingly blind to her own monstrosity through her love for her monarch? She might execute a face-heel turn. Or will she?
This book establishes two of many possible worlds, and they are grinding closer and closer together as the portentous Oma rises in the sky, heralding catastrophic change. People blessed with Oma’s power can sometimes open gates between these worlds, and anyone whose double is dead in one world can cross into it.
The first of these worlds is a fantasy continent divided between three main nations. One, a nation of escaped slaves, is egalitarian and isolationist. The other two are various forms of slave state and both are very warlike.
But, as time goes by it becomes increasingly clear that the utopians haven’t always been peace loving, and may have only become slaves as a result of a failed campaign of aggression against their neighbors. Meanwhile, in the other world, they never lost, but their world is dying.
Ultimately this story focuses around a girl from the other world – Lilia. Fearing how her people would use her, her mother sends her away from the dying world and she grows up hidden and unremarked, a servant in a temple.
But as Oma rises, and the need for the newly powerful people who can channel its power becomes pressing, people begin looking for Lilia, wanting to use her for their own various ends.
Nobody stops to consider that she might have her own objectives, and an implacable will to achieve them.
Hurley uses multiple close perspective characters effectively to hide details from the audience, allowing us to learn about her rich world as it unfolds. She’s demonstrated the ability to efficiently build worlds in the Bel Dame Apocrypha and she’s only become more effective at doing so as time goes by.
She also has a talent for injecting humanity into her characters such that you can uncomfortably find yourself actively rooting for monstrous people because you understand both what led them to monstrosity and that what makes them broken doesn’t necessarily make them wrong, all the time.
Bottom line, if you want a fantasy novel that understands its tropes well and applies them deftly enough to subvert them surprisingly, a story with exceptional world building and complex characters, a book that says something interesting about the nature of self, you would be well advised to read this book.