BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In a pair of worlds dominated by the magic of stars and moons, a building conflict threatens.
PROS: Fascinating cultures and societies; diverse set of protagonists; interesting ecology and magic systems; wonderful cover art.
CONS: Some worldbuilding elements are only skin deep; novel skirts some of the meat of events in its focus on its characters.
BOTTOM LINE: A successful transit from SF into Epic Fantasy that retains the author’s signature voice and style.
Moons and Stars rise and fall in the skies, and with it, does the powers and abilities of the practitioners of magic wax and wane. Nations and cultures too, and even effects on a continental, global scale. The last time the dark star arose, the geography of two worlds changed irrevocably. For you see, two worlds are bound by these moons and stars, their ebbs and flows. Two worlds, with the same peoples, the same cultures, but with distinctly different histories. Enough that a broken people on one world is a power on the other, an Empire seeking to bridge the gap, and conquer its neighbor. With invasion, intrigue, and the dark star rising, the fate of these two worlds are inextricably linked, and those living on them swept up in a time of tumult that will change them all, if not sweep them away entirely.
The Mirror Empire is the first of an epic fantasy/portal fantasy duology from Kameron Hurley. Portal fantasy, long the province of 1980’s fantasy aimed at teenage boys, has been in a lull spot lately, out of fashion. Although the two worlds of the Mirror Empire universe are secondary worlds having nothing to do with Earth, a book where two worlds have gates between them still, in my mind, counts as a portal fantasy. Transport between the two worlds, and their pointed interactions are crucial to the book.
Hurley’s previous three novels have been characterized with the catchy triptych of “Bugs, Blood and Brutal Women.” Nasheen is not a nice place to live, and not much better to visit, with endless war, a hostile environment, and some wicked biotechnology. All wrapped up in societies where women have just as much power as the men, and are not afraid to use it. In the two worlds of The Mirror Empire, we get Deadly Plants, Blood Magic, and yes, Brutal Women.
That triptych highlights the rich worldbuilding that the author brings to The Mirror Empire. From deadly jungles with woman-eating plants, to desolate, isolated refugee camps, to wonderfully rendered center of religious authority, to the intrigues of a royal court, the author, with her multiple point of view characters, renders the two worlds in stunning, vivid detail, and with cultures and societies, alien, strange, and all too human. Societies which have ritualistic cannibalism, brutal and vicious matriarchies, warmongering Empires, duplicitous polities, and winner-take-all struggles for religious leadership.
And then there is the magic. Most epic fantasy has a lot of fun and care with its magic system, and Mirror Empire is no exception. Astromancy, magic based on the rises and falls of celestial bodies in the sky is not a unique idea (I’ve used it in RPG games) but it’s an uncommon one, at best, and the author plays that unfamiliarity to the hilt in delightfully showing us what it can do. The rises and falls of stars and planets gives the author plenty of room to show the magic at varying levels, rising and falling, and the dark star rising itself is a major plot thread in the novel. And working some of this magic involves some very dark, bloody rituals indeed.
There is a diverse quartet of protagonists to provide multiple points of view to all of this worldbuilding, magic and conflict. The displaced orphan Lila, desperate to keep a promise to her mother. Captain General Zezili, given dark orders by her Empress, and conflicted between those orders and loyalty to her people. Akhio, thrust into the center of a religious succession struggle he wants no part of. And finally, Roh, a scholar whose skills and abilities are unusual, and unknown, even to himself. More, like Lila’s, they appear to be waxing just as the dark star is. We also get some other minor points of view that help fill out the world. For the most part, though, the meat of character growth and change are in our protagonists.
I do think, though, that some of that worldbuilding detail could have been rendered a little more frequently We some really cool things, things that seem more central than they are rendered, only the once. And some key plot developments appear, at best, in an off-screen capacity rather than front and center. There is also a bit of notable unevenness in character development and care, with Lila for the most part getting a perhaps unfair larger share than her fellow POVs. I do deem these are very minor faults, however, given the strong, clear quality of the book.
Although the three books of the Bel Dame Apocrypha are solid pieces of science fiction, this first book in a new series makes it seem as if secondary world fantasy is the author’s natural subgenre. The Mirror Empire keeps the distinct strengths of previous work, and has shown that the author has wonderfully grown and developed as a writer in the process. The Mirror Empire is both a chance for fantasy fans to get to know Hurley’s writing, and for previous fans of her work to see what she can do in a new vein. And for readers new to her work, this is in many ways the best place to start.