Fantasy demands a great deal from its readers. The genre has formed around multi-book series that measure into the thousands of pages and span numerous realms, each with their own distinct histories, languages, magic systems, ecologies, and species (often described as “races”). Not to mention the hundreds of characters readers have to keep track of. Often, readers have to wait years between books. Good fantasy writers (and smart publishers) understand the limits of the demands they can place on readers. Kameron Hurley, thankfully, is a good fantasy writer.
The third and final novel of her Worldbreaker Saga, The Broken Heavens, has come five years after the second novel, in part due to the author’s frustration with the writing of the series’s finale (which included at least one full rewrite of the manuscript). The Broken Heaven is not so much a bang of an ending as a nice, quiet parting of ways between readers and the world of Raisa. The Broken Heavens does not wow but comforts those of us who stuck around to see its end. Hurley rewards patrons justly with massive battles, complicated subplots, mountain-sized ships falling out of the sky, impossible magics remaking the world, and a pleasant ending for the trilogy’s dauntless, stubborn hero, Lilia.
Hurley—a self-proclaimed author of stories set on weird worlds populated with brutal women—is by now a familiar name in the SFF scene thanks to her multiple award nominations throughout the 2010s and particularly her Hugo Award for Best Related Work, the essay “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle, and Slaves’ Narrative.” More recently, her essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution and her novels The Light Brigade and The Stars Are Legion have made her a familiar name among those who pay attention to the SFF awards and enjoy good critical, feminist, decolonial genre fare. I discovered Hurley the same year I first read Leckie and Jemisin, and the association fits well.
Still, for my life, the Worldbreaker Saga is the triumph of Hurley’s career to date—a sprawling grimdark epic fantasy series set in an incredibly designed world, rich with rough-and-tumble characters, many of whom I love to hate and some I’d die fighting alongside. The Worldbreaker Saga is the sort of series that takes seriously the political machinations of its made-up kingdoms, criticizes the oppressive structures of our society while weaving new possibilities, and asks you to pay close attention to the appended maps and glossary (seriously, you’ll be lost otherwise).
The trilogy began with The Mirror Empire (2014), a brutal novel that introduced the world of Raisa, its warring kingdoms, and its oncoming apocalypse. Raisa is a dying world troubled by cosmological and political problems, as the boundaries between planes thin and the genocidal Tai Mora begin to invade. Meanwhile, the peaceful kingdom of the Dhai comes to civil war, the matriarchal Dorinnah begin to fracture, and the Saiduan empire to the north falls to the Tai Mora blade as a young, disabled bloodmage, Lilia, discovers her immense magical potential and searches for a way to safeguard the world. In the middle novel, Empire Ascendant (2015), everything goes to shit: Lilia loses her powers in the final battle against the Tai Mora, the leader of the Dhai—beautiful, sensitive, reluctant Ahkio—dies, and all seems lost as the world of Raisa becomes the last dominion of the Tai Mora. We learn more about the cosmology of this world, namely that every two thousands years the “evil star” Oma rises, joins in the sky with the others (Para, Sina, and Tira), and the worlds “break,” rendering some planes uninhabitable, some devastated but rebuildable, and others erased from existence. The Tai Mora are revealed to be not so much genocidal maniacs, but a particularly well-organized people fleeing one of the dying planes parallel to Raisa: for any Tai Mora to come to Raisa, their Raisan double must be killed.
The Broken Heavens thus begins in a land devastated by war and the increasing catastrophe of Oma’s slow rise throughout the heavens as the “breaking” of the worlds draws near. There are no heroes left: Ahkio is dead; the leader of the Tai Mora, Kirana, has become monstrous in her effort to save her people; Lilia is a powerless cult leader lying to her acolytes; and the cast of minor characters is bumbling about, either working for the Tai Mora, hiding out in supposedly safer lands, or vaguely scheming (I’m looking at you, Taigan!). As Hurley gets back to work weaving the many threads of her characters’ plots together—and they do indeed form, by the last few chapters, a tightly woven tapestry that has grown slowly over the course of the saga, no easy feat—the moral stakes of the series become clear. A historian by training, Hurley digs into the meanings of what it means to wage war for the sake of a nation’s survival, what it means to commit atrocities to ensure your loved ones survive. The enemy is revealed to be an enemy not so much as a result of ideological or political differences, but because their very existence threatens yours.
The Tai Mora, under Kirana, have done terrible things, and as a result Lilia can only imagine complete and utter revenge: to take control of the world-breaking powers of the stars using the ancient Temple of Oma, and to erase the Tai Mora from history, to destroy them as they destroyed her mother and her people. Lilia, a scullery maid who came into great magical power and subsequently led a faction of the Dhai bent on violent resistance to the Tai Mora, discovers in the end that her hate of the Tai Mora does not avenge the deaths they have brought about, but punishes them for doing what they deemed necessary to survive. It is the worlds themselves, the fact of their epochal shattering, that have forced the historical violence wrought by the Tai Mora to live. This sort of moral arc could easily become a scapegoat for just about any evil in history, but Hurley refuses to allow her characters to be released from the moral implications of their actions. Everyone receives their comeuppance, the systemic wrong (the shattering of worlds) is righted, but the Tai Mora and the others must live with the pain they caused, must confront it. Lilia, her powers gone, having had to choose not to take revenge despite having sought it for 1500 pages, receives an uncharacteristically happy ending and passes into pleasant obscurity in the wilderness of Dhai.
The Broken Heavens brings Hurley’s usual attention to worldbuilding, to the political and material textures of life in the various nations of Raisa. Her language is crisp, brilliantly descriptive, and the churning emotions of characters driven to wit’s and exhaustion’s end by apocalyptic circumstances is a language of its own. The Worldbreaker Saga is a trilogy in which interpersonal relationships—alliances, loves, betrayals—are just as important as the magical living swords, the cosmology-dependent magical system, and the trippy time travelling. The Broken Heavens offers a narratively and emotionally satisfying end to the trilogy for those of us who have kept Lilia, Taigan, Ahkio, Luna, and Anavha alive in our memories for half a decade. I am convinced that with The Broken Heavens, Hurley’s contribution to fantasy fiction with the Worldbreaker Saga will be as passionately remembered as Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, as much for its inventive worldbuilding and practical critique of grimdark as for its literary quality and impressive, unmuddled magnitude.