Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review of The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The epic fantasy market is bursting the shelves these days.  So many titles appearing in fact, micro-genres have splintered off as writers are forced to greater lengths in achieving originality.  Thinking to add her own imaginative world to the fray, in 2014 Kameron Hurley penned The Mirror Empire (Angry Robot books), first in the Worldbreaker series.  Combining the magic and visuals of mmo gaming with an epic fantasy mindset atypical for its superficial treatment of gender but quite familiar for the quests, grasps at power, and kingdom sweeping wars beneath, fans have a new title to chew over in deciding whether the genre has reached its saturation point, or if there is is room for one more on the shelves.

Set on a sprawling, diverse world, The Mirror Empire capitalizes on ‘epic’.  Multiple cultures located in multiple lands using multiple types of magic in multiple battles and feuds that extend beyond good vs. evil, Hurley throws the contemporary conception of epic fantasy upon the reader.  In one region resides a society grouped in clans that bears a strong resemblance to those of samurai/ninja stories, right down to the Japanese names.  Trained assassins wielding various steel and biological weapons, magic assisting those whose star is in the ascendant, and sedition and subterfuge continually in the shadows, the clans’ future is about to change as the ruling empress lies on her deathbed, her unprepared brother waiting in the wings.  In a land far to the north, a matriarchal society exists, and one of its leading generals, Zezili, has just received a strange command from her queen.  Unquestioningly devout, Zezili follows the orders perfectly and sets about slaughtering her kingdom’s working class.  But when she sees the dead’s blood used for arcane magic, a whole new world reveals itself—literally and figuratively.  And lastly, when a young girl named Lilia and her mother are attacked by marauders, the mother is forced to send her daughter through a portal into an alternate world to save her.  Arriving at a temple, Lilia grows up amongst other youths her age, but remains determined to find her mother.  When chaos arises around her, a chance opportunity appears, and she is taken on a journey with a mysterious dark assassin who wields magic beyond the wax and wane of stars.  Lilia’s own powers slowly unleashed, her mother draws closer one tumultuous step at a time. 

Myriad sub-stories spun off from those above, The Mirror Empire is plot spaghetti.  One almost needs to take notes to track all of the names, places, titles, factions, and groups.  But only ‘almost’.  When looking at the larger picture, The Mirror Empire is standard epic fantasy, and for as confusing as a planet’s worth of nomenclature can be, the paths of genre are so familiar one can walk them with eyes closed.  There is a girl with undiscovered powers, hidden books of secret lore, assassins lurking, quests, neologisms, kingdom feuding with kingdom, alternate worlds, symbol puzzles to be solved, beasts of the fantastic, colorful magic systems with spells and wards, and yes, plans for genocide.  Almost everything the fans of the genre love is implanted in the novel, right down to its classic zingers. “I’ll find out who killed her, Nasaka, if I have to burn this whole temple down around me.” is one, and another is: "He could take her life, but she would always have his heart", as well as this doozy:

    Ahkio closed the book. “What if I told you I’d heard someone say that Kirana killed herself? Why would a person do something like that?”
    Ghrasia touched his hands. “To save someone they love.”

While there will be many who cite the color and vividity of the magic system as the best part of The Mirror Empire (indeed it is appealing), the manner in which Hurley interleaves the storylines remains its greatest success.  Nothing routine (first character A, then B, then C), the narrative moves between the various viewpoints according to need.  It is this ‘need’ which Hurley has a firm grasp of.  I imagined the story arcs like buckets with holes in them that Hurley ran amongst to keep filled with water, return trips dependent on the size of the hole.  No bucket allowed to go empty, the overall pace of the novel is never allowed to slow, while the ebb and flow of individual stories move to complementary rhythms.  For a novel with such a large number of sub-stories, this is a real achievement. 

But for as nicely balanced as pace and plotting are, there remains a noticeable gap in background detail.  I’m not referring to the fictional history of the people or lands: this receives perfunctory treatment such that the reader learns enough to understand the motivations and movements of characters.  What I’m referring to are the subtleties of setting and character.

One of the things that makes George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series as immersive as it is, is its sense of person and place.  When a scene needs this detail, when it doesn’t, what should be added here to offer verisimilitude, where a tangible element the reader can relate is added, a tiny reminder to jog the reader’s memory about an important plot point, etc.—all are taken care of “in the background” by Martin. As a result the reader slowly builds an image of the world in their mind for easy reference when off-screen names or lands are mentioned.  This sense of person and place—the reader’s mental reference book of the novel—is not fully constructed in The Mirror Empire.  Easy to overlook due to the brisk plotting, rarely does Hurley stop to describe a place beyond a few details, take a quick break to look at the broader scope, rehash where things stand, or, most importantly, crack open a character beyond the second dimension.  More like outlines than finished pieces (the cover art in this case is representative), the significant elements of The Mirror Empire are loosely not fully singularized, which leads to problems identifying with character and place while reading. 

And the evidence is in the page count.  Where Martin needed roughly 700 pages to introduce the reader to the players, gameboard, and gameplay of A Game of Thrones, Hurley uses 400—despite the fact she has just as many characters, kingdoms, and interrelationships at stake (really).  I’m not one to yammer for longer epic fantasy these days, but Hurley’s book is one that, while effectively relating gameplay, could have done with more in-depth treatment of its players and gameboard such that the size of the vision could be better realized in the mind’s eye.  As it stands, it’s likely the reader will often have thoughts such as “Kairana? Which one was that, again?  The one feuding with Nagana, or the assassin protecting the Patron?”  Few clues ladled the reader’s way after initial introductions, a lot of time is spent keeping the characters and settings in place mentally, rather than relaxing and enjoying what is a truly sprawling, epic story.  (For the record, I’m not saying Hurley should imitate Martin, but if one looks at all of the ‘great’ epic fantasies of such scope, they will find said background details in place.)

If not for being grandiose epic fantasy, then The Mirror Empire will garner some attention for its play with gender.  Like with Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, however, I’m not sure the treatment is beyond skin deep.  One of the cultures in the novel has four personal pronouns for ‘he’ and ‘she’ that identify passiveness and aggressiveness in a personality.  But, 1) the pronouns are never shown to the reader (i.e. as neologisms), 2) are mentioned only a few times, and 3) have only the effect to give the reader the brief impression the culture under discussion is more formal and complex.  Given a large part of the book is about power struggles, the potential is wasted.  There are likewise neuter characters called ataisis.  But again, just window decoration.  There is little discussion of how they interact with people or examination of the resulting relationship complexity which would draw out the potential meaning of having a neuter gender in society.  And thirdly, there is a character which morphs back and forth between male and female.  But besides a snide comment about how troublesome urinary tract infections are, little else is done with the idea.  By comparison, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness utilizes a neuter humanoid species to rigorously examine what gender means to the individual and society.  It is the premise of her novel, rather than a tertiary feature.  Given this counter-point, the alternate gender aspects of The Mirror Empire feel more like candy tossed to the politically correct crowd rather than a hearty meal that would serve real discussion on the underlying meaning of gender and gendered language.  (And yes, fantasy does have a strong circle of academics eagerly looking for substantive material.)

I described Hurley’s debut novel God’s War as a work of extreme third wave feminism.  An effusion of blood and gore initiated by a hero intentionally female rather than male, the novel possessed a dearth of anger, but not in a way that progressed cultural ideals.  (Given the radical quantity of pointless violence in the bleakest of dystopias, it was perhaps even a regression.)  The Mirror Empire likewise seeks to play such games; several commonly held gender roles in genre are inverted.  Case in point: Zezili, a strong female warrior, and her husband, a popinjay she controls to the point of slavery.  Their relationship is identified per the following: 

    “His first night with Zezili, she made him strip in her bedroom in her country house. She cuffed him across the mouth, drawing blood. She told him to kneel. He was so startled, he did not even cry out.
    She took his chin in her hand and said, “You’re mine. All of you. Every bit of you. You’ll service my sisters, because it’s proscribed. But never forget you’re mine.”

By reversing the stereotypical husband/wife relationship as such, Hurley passionately hammers a female peg into a male hole.  But one wonders: should there have been such a hole to begin with?  In other words, just because a man plays greedy, egocentric power games in genre does it make it acceptable for a woman to do so, also?  Is the scene above an enlightened depiction of a male/female relationship?  Does it progress mutual respect, gender relations, or a balanced feminist agenda?  Or is it just a kid sticking his middle finger up at a passing car, knowing he won’t get in trouble for it? 

The inversion of gender roles accomplishes little if super-dominance and ill-treatment are still the result.  Not until the underlying terms of power in the relationship are dealt with in comprehensive fashion can any real commentary be made.  Thus, the bottom line of The Mirror Empire is that it doesn’t require a great deal of imagination to create a character or society on paper for which gender is perceived differently or is functionally different than the real world.  What requires real imagination is to flesh that alternate reality out, to explore its implications for the deeper meaning, and then make them apparent in individually and socially relevant terms. Significantly bound up in plotting, magic, power games, violence, and the more commercial side of genre, Hurley’s novel does not accomplish this in any meaningful fashion.  (It’s possible I’m speaking too soon, and Hurley may develop Zezili’s relationship with her husband in the coming books, but for the moment, this is how it appears.) 

Thus, is The Mirror Empire a standout on the epic fantasy market today?  The conclusion: depends how you view the novel.  If one looks at its entertainment qualities, the answer is yes.  Dressed in the vibrant colors of grimdark samurai, it features an extreme variety of characters and settings, and will satisfy the reader looking for a complex world with action.  The quests, revenge, blood feuds, sword fights, magic, genocide, etc. is what the genre is stereotyped for.  At a minimum it will be comfort food, and at maximum ‘an original take on epic fantasy’.  But if one looks deeper than the skin, they find little that stands out.  For as well as Hurley handles pace and scene transitions, a better job could have been done singularizing the characters and settings such that when names appear, one does not have to rifle unconfidently through weak impressions to find at the desired person or place.  More importantly, the gender treatment takes only the first step.  It is a paper exercise.  The second step (examination or discussion of gender in a cultural or societal context with meaningful purpose) doesn’t happen.  For its continuation of the “strong will always overpower the weak” mentality and sustained depiction of blood and gore, The Mirror Empire, like God’s War, most closely resembles Richard Morgan’s writing.  Where Morgan made the switch from cyberpunk/noir to epic fantasy, from the Takeshi Kovacs novels to Land Fit for Heroes, so too has Hurley, and will therefore be of interest to those who enjoy his novels. 

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