The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley ★★★1/2
Trigger warnings for rape and self-harm
The Mirror Empire is a very inventive and very grimdark epic fantasy. While I enjoyed the world(s) Hurley created and the ideas she was working with, ultimately it was too dark for my tastes.
The Mirror Empire can be a hard book to wrap your mind around. There’s a multitude of characters and POVs, over three different cultures, and two worlds. Plus, Hurley blows the “medieval Europe” obsession of fantasy out of the water, creating an entirely original world instead that does not appear to be based off any part of Earth’s history. It is astoundingly inventive.
In The Mirror Empire there are sentient plants which walk, houses formed from seedpods, and a system of magic based on the stars overhead. A large part of what makes the book so interesting is how Hurley dismantles the gender assumptions and social norms that tend to creep into fantasy cultures supposedly different than our own. Her world is non-hetronormative, and most of her characters appear to be bi or pansexual (except possibly Zezili). One of the cultures is a very violent and oppressive matriarchy reliant on slavery. Another is a patriarchal culture that segregates men and women but which also recognizes three different genders. The probable “protagonist culture” is that of the Dhai, a nation made up of escaped slaves. The Dhai’s social system is based around kinship ties and the large families resulting from polygamous families (multiple husbands and multiple wives). While they are nowhere near as matriarchal as the culture which enslaved them, they do seem to slant that way with a matrilineal system of ruler ship.
The plot of The Mirror Empire is tied up in the magic system and could possibly be considered a spoiler. In short, some people can draw powers from three satellites that orbit the world. Their powers wax and wan with the rising and setting of these satellites. However, there is a fourth satellite – Oma – which rises roughly every 2,000 years. Those who draw on Oma can use the powers of all the satellites and open gates between the different worlds. However, Oma also heralds great destruction. The world next door to the main one is ending, and a woman of that world is sending her armies to conquer it. But you can only travel from one world to another if your mirror counterpart is dead. Thus, the people of the “next door” world are eradicating the people of the “main” world. Unsurprisingly, a book about genocide is incredibly dark.
There are so many characters that it can be hard to keep track of them all at times. (Hint – the glossary in the back is very helpful!) While they are hardly the only characters to get POV sections, the four mentioned on the back probably get the most page time, and I will go over a few here.
Ahkio is possibly the most likable character. His section begins with the unexpected death of his sister, and him being called to the temple to be sworn in as the new Kai, the leader of the Dhai people. While the narrative notes that the preceding Kai have been a variety of different genders, Ahkio is the first without the ability to give birth to an heir. He is also without magical gifts, another reason he struggles to maintain power. Ahkio is well intentioned and doesn’t do anything despicable (unlike most of the characters), but he suffers from lack of agency, too often constrained and manipulated by the people around him.
Lilith is a young girl from a different world who promised her mother that she would one day return to her. Various different groups are after Lilith for the powers she supposedly has, but she just wants to find her mother and fulfill her promise. She starts off naive and innocent and gets less so, proving herself rather ruthless in the process. Like Ahkio, she has problems with agency, although these do get better towards the end.
Finally, I reach Zezili, who is the absolute worst. I will admit that she can be fascinating to watch, sort of like Cathy in Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Zezili is a half Dhai general from the matriarchal culture who has no problems with committing mass murder and genocide, or with raping and abusing her husband both physically and psychologically. At least Anavha, her husband, has his own POV sections and looks like he will be having his own character arc. FYI, he also cuts himself, so tread lightly if you have problems with self harm.
If you’re someone who wants heroic characters, you’d be better off not reading The Mirror Empire. With a few exceptions, pretty much everyone is horrible. The best comparison I can think of in terms of characters is Game of Thrones, with all it’s morally complex grey characters. Possibly for this reason, I had trouble becoming invested with any of them. Most of them could die and I either wouldn’t care or would cheer.
I don’t know if I’ll read the next book in the series. While I really like the sheer imagination and Hurley’s willingness to confront and challenge gender norms, I’m not sure if I want to spend my time on such a brutal read.