I thought I was prepared.
I had read MIRROR EMPIRE. I’d read GOD’S WAR. I knew Kameron Hurley was as unrelentingly brutal as any other author in fantasy out there.
I knew Kameron Hurley made the average Grimdark fantasy look like a meet cute.
I was not ready.
EMPIRE ASCENDANT is definitely the most brutal book I’ve read since BEST SERVED COLD by Joe Abercrombie; and I’d need to re-read Abercrombie’s tale of revenge before I’d commit to even it being as heavy a book as this. If any book deserves to be converted into a black metal saga it is this one.
Set in a world which broke thanks to a forgotten apocalypse thousands of years previous, EMPIRE ASCENDANT is the second book in the Worldbreaker Saga. It picks up shortly after the hard-won victories of the protagonists from the first book and shows them to be entirely futile.
Every victory achieved by blood, tears and sacrifice in MIRROR EMPIRE is Pyrrhic. And that’s the high point of this story.
I have to say that Hurley is masterful at writing broken people who are fundamentally human, throwing them through a wood chipper, gathering up the broken bits into a heap and then making you care about the heap. This is especially the case with Zezili. The general of Dorinah, full of rage and destruction, abuses everybody she purports to love and spends the first book complicit in the vicious misdeeds of her empress. Her weak attempt to rebel and do the right thing leads to her being viciously mauled and she starts the second book barely clinging to life, being put back together in the wake of this. Things don’t get any better for Zezili, but along the way something strange happens.
You watch this powerful, destructive, dangerous person get the shit kicked out of her over and over again. Time and again the universe sends her the message to stay down, stop fighting, just rest for the love of all that’s holy. But no. She gets back up. Over and over again, against all the odds, Zezili gets back up, spits out a mouthful of blood and broken teeth and woozily says, “was that your best shot?”
And by the end of the book, you’re pulling for her. This awful, abusive, abrasive, stubborn killer just goes through so much and even though she’s not much more than a mass of wounds held together by stubbornness and contrarian spite you can’t help but sympathize with her.
Hurley doesn’t do simple characters.
The likable pacifist leader of the Dhai is a coward and a fool. The brilliant tactician is arrogant and can’t get anybody to listen to her. The genocidal tyrant is motivated mostly by a deep well of love for a family who will die if she doesn’t carve out a home for them somewhere else, a home that can’t exist unless she slaughters their doubles. Every character in this book is a study in the cognitive dissonance of a person who will do horrible things with the best of intentions, and heroic things with the worst of intentions.
And then that climax.
The next time somebody suggests that the Red Wedding is as rough as things get in fantasy I’ll just smile wistfully and shake my head.
I loved EMPIRE ASCENDANT, but it is one of those books that’s hard to recommend. Because this is not a book that welcomes the reader for a few happy hours of gentle escape. This is a book that wars with the reader. If you want a fantasy novel that will struggle with you, a fantasy novel that will kick you in the gut and stab you in the heart, read EMPIRE ASCENDANT.