One of the most impressive things about Kameron Hurley's The Mirror Empire is the sheer volume of information it packs into its five hundred-odd pages. Five hundred pages might seem like a lot of room for a writer to work with, but when you consider that the universe in which the book takes place has at least three major nations, all of which have history stretching back multiple thousands of years, and that each nation has its own religions, languages, customs, internal ethnic groups, manners, hierarchies, political factions, ways of regarding magic, gender systems, and family structures—and also that I use the plurals here because the nations are not internally homogeneous—it starts to make a lot of sense that Hurley mentions in her acknowledgments the person who helped her put together an informational wiki to use for the line edits. Especially since the plot involves two parallel worlds which are actually versions of one another, and which resemble each other a great deal more than parallel worlds usually do in fiction, so that individuals in one world may have doppelgangers in the other one whose lives went only slightly differently, thereby increasing the complexity yet again.
However, another one of the most impressive things about The Mirror Empire is that despite its density it remains, for the most part, easily readable, and does so without having a single unifying viewpoint character or narrative thread. It is a massive sprawling epic fantasy, and follows the basic conventions of that genre which state that it must have a map in the front, and the limited third-person perspective of at least ten people who are involved in laterally related segments of an apocalyptically convoluted plot. Fortunately, it also follows its genre in that the prose is simple and clear, and each individual segment contains enough story to propel the action forward by itself.
The overall plot involves the full-scale invasion of one world by another. In this cosmos, astrology is a significant force, in that in addition to multiple suns and moons, there are also satellites, which rise and fall in erratic orbits. Some people are gifted with affinities for one satellite or another, and those gifted have various magical powers, but only while their satellite remains visible in the sky. After two thousand years of absence, the satellite Oma is beginning to rise, and Oma is always a harbinger of change and destruction. People with an affinity for Oma can, among other things, raise the dead, heal serious injuries, and break down the walls between parallel worlds to create gates. However, worldgate travel comes at a price: to open the gate and keep it open requires freshly spilled blood, and no one can cross the gate in either direction who has a surviving doppelganger on the other side. One world, in which Oma is closer and more fully risen, is on the brink of environmental catastrophe because the satellite has swung too near. The people of that world are attempting on their opposites a combination of military force with the assassination and replacement of selected doppelgangers, which boils down to an extremely subtle plan for genocide. Due to this subtlety, a significant chunk of the world being invaded is unaware that there is a war going on.
Among those who do know is Shao Maralah Daonia, a military leader and trained assassin of the country of Saiduan, which is unlucky enough to be the nation facing the invaders in open battle, and which is losing quickly and definitively. Shao Maralah Daonia is trying to collect those who can use Oma's powers, knowing that in her world they will be untrained and unaware of their abilities because of the satellite's long absence. One of the people her agent tries to collect is Lilia, who works as a drudge in the temple of Oma in the country of the Dhai, far away from Saiduan. Lilia doesn't think she has any powers, but she remembers living as a very young child in a place where the sky was a different color and the people and customs were just slightly different . . . but not different enough for anyone to believe her about it for most of her life. Lilia is looking for her mother, who vanished in a battle Lilia only partially remembers, but which seems just as unlikely as the rest of her very early memories. Lilia's attempts to avoid being hauled off to Saiduan as she searches for her mother are one of the widest-ranging and farthest-reaching narrative threads.
Another major strand involves power struggles in the temple of Oma and among the political leadership of the Dhai, who are clans ruled by a kind of administrative director called a Kai. Following the sudden death of the previous Kai, his sister, the young and reluctant Ahkio has to consolidate his power in the midst of the destabilizing events which he does not yet know are caused by the invaders. The Dhai clans work in a consensus-based manner and are firmly committed to a pacifist ideology, meaning that realizing that they are being attacked is only the first of Ahkio's problems.
The reason for the Dhai pacifism can be traced to the country's origin as a band of slaves escaping from the neighboring matriarchal and misandrist Empire of Dorinah. Dorinah has for generations enslaved any ethnic Dhai it could capture. Zezili Hasaria, Captain General of Dorinah and unaware of the mirror war, has just been ordered to kill the entire population of Dorinah's Dhai slave camps and is having difficulty understanding why her Empress is suddenly demanding extremely bloody massacres which strike at the root of Dorinah's economy. And Lilia, who looks very Dhai, will not find travel through Dorinah either safe or easy.
The intertwined nature of everyone's histories and travels, the ethnic tensions, the balances between who knows what information at what time—all of these things are very well done. It's noteworthy that many of the main viewpoint characters are female and that they are powerful, interesting, well-developed characters who are not necessarily sympathetic and who have a wide range of virtues and flaws, capable of everything from Zezili's belief that she is letting down her nation by having any qualms at all about ethnicide to Lilia's devoted fixation about her mother being the only thing which could make her universe make sense. It's also noteworthy that the skin of all of these characters is some shade of brown; that Dhai marriages include four to six adults of whatever sex seems reasonable, while Dorinah men live in a kind of purdah, and Saiduan sexes are equally powerful but strictly segregated; that the Dhai have five gendered pronouns and the Saiduan three, which does, in fact, cause intercultural friction; that the magical technology is not solely pseudo-medieval, as it includes things like monorails; in short, that Hurley is clearly intentionally deconstructing, subverting, or simply ignoring a lot of the more questionable things about the tropes of traditional sprawling epic fantasy in favor of a diverse, complex, and fully human-feeling set of practices. One of the best moments in the book comes when a person who thinks in Saiduan, and who quite simply does not fit into any of the three possible pronouns, contemplates the Dhai system and wonders whether things would be better in a language without such limited gender boxes.
However, despite these virtues, and the book's aforementioned readability and propulsive storytelling, The Mirror Empire does have a significant issue which interfered substantially with my enjoyment. It deconstructs epic fantasy, yes; what it does not deconstruct is the fairly recent genre often referred to as grimdark. The book feels as though it is being dark for the sake of its own darkness. There are deaths in battle, and accidental deaths, and nasty deaths because of ethnic cleansing, and horrid betrayals, and falls off cliffs, and falls through ice, and domestic abuse, and fortunately not all that much rape, and blood sacrifices, and doppelganger stabbing, and all this happens at the rate of something about every five pages and sometimes more frequently. It becomes difficult to become attached to or to like any of the characters, because any of them might get killed or do something appalling at any time, and while this is reasonable in moderation, it is not, in this case, moderate. This is coupled with an odd lack of focus on some of the book's actual moral issues—the invaders, for instance, are in a situation where they must commit genocide or die, but they are shown quite one-dimensionally as a really, really terrible society, and it is clear that the author does not intend them to engage our sympathy. The frequency of fairly inconsequential bad things happening to the characters in the foreground, such as an instance of a party of people falling through ice which turns out to have no effect on the plot whatsoever, while real pathos such as the genocide-or-death dilemma is relegated to the background, leads to a sense that the book has misplaced its priorities.
On a macro level, as a piece of worldbuilding, plotting, character creation, trope deconstruction, and planning, The Mirror Empire is a major and significant achievement. On a micro level, it's all too easy to forget that because of the sheer quantity of gratuitous-feeling violence and pain. It's continuously interesting, and on occasion rises to admirable, and it has the courage of its convictions. It's a shame those convictions went so far towards making it an extremely unpleasant experience.
Lila Garrott has blue hair and brown eyes. Her fiction, poetry, and criticism have appeared in Not One of Us, Mythic Delirium, and other venues. She recently completed a project in which she read a book and wrote a review of it every day for a year; the reviews may be found on Dreamwidth and LiveJournal.