Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire, the first installment in her Worldbreaker Saga, came to my attention when Adrian Czajkowski recommended it on his blog. If not for his short review, I doubt I would have even known the book existed. And it would have been a missed chance, because even if it’s not a masterpiece – and to be frank, it’s not, not by a long shot – the book’s worldbuilding and the sheer size of the what-if exercise poured onto its pages is something definitely worth acquainting oneself with. Just look at the gorgeous cover! 🙂 Angry Robot really knows how to do them.
Hurley creates a world teeming with poisonous, semi-sentient plant life, and a variety of wizard priests, whose power is derived from one of the natural satellites circling the planet. There are four main moons, and four types of magic associated with them. Every talented person can pull on the power of one satellite: Tira, Para, Sina or Oma. Rarely, there are people able to pull on more than one magic. But as the satellites circle the planet on their respective paths, their magic waxes and wanes, according to their position on the sky. The most mysterious and dangerous of them all is Oma, the black moon, or maybe just a black hole, giving unearthly power to those who are able to wield it, and raining destruction on the worlds as she nears them. Oma is the harbinger of death and profound change; once she passes, the world is never the same. And – yeah, you’ve got it – she is coming, much earlier than any of the star gazers could have anticipated.
If this is not complex enough for you, let me add the twist: there are many worlds like this, each a reflection of the world described in the novel. There are changes, of course, but even the people are the same on every world. Which means that if one is to move through a rent between the dimensions to another world, his or her mirror twin needs to be dead.
Oh, and there’s a lot of history crammed into the tight confines of the small region the book takes place – nations conquered and conquering, nations exterminated and enslaved, full of memories of different pasts… Add to it painstakingly detailed cultural differences, from the pacifist Dhai nation of no less than five genders, former brutal imperialists who are now peaceful, backwater-ish and isolated in their family clans living behind impenetrable mountain ridges, to Dorinah, militant slavers of Dhai remnants, whose dominant sex is female and whose inscrutable Empress had come from another world.
I could go on and on, describing the believable complexity of the Worldbreaker Saga’s world. Thank goodness it has an appendix, where even some of the most common toxic plants are listed ;). The worldbuilding is intriguing and fresh, plunging head on into some controversial topics like gender, racism, nationality and reimagined history, and emerging… not quite victorious, but close enough to count. Hurley must have spent colossal amounts of time simply creating this world.
If it’s so good, why is it then so bad?
Well, the answer is simple: plot and characters. And an unconvincing fundamentalist feminist message – but more on that later. Hurley seemingly spent so much time on building her world that she had forgotten about characters and plot. I managed to like (albeit only mildly) just two characters in the entire, multi-POV book – and one of them has already been beheaded. The main protagonists are flatter than a book’s page they’ve been written on. There is virtually no character development. What is there to develop, after all, if the protagonists are equipped with no more than a couple of recognizable individual traits? And if Hurley finally makes attempt at it – in the only case I can point out, the main female lead – she miserably fails. The outcome seems so ungrounded and illogical that she could have probably achieve better results with offing the character and introducing someone else in her place. Psychology simply seems not to exist in Hurley’s world. Deus ex machina device is employed numerous times, and most of the characters seem to be there only as vehicles for furthering the weak plot with holes bigger than any of the robust and gigantic plant life inhabiting The Mirror Empire’s world – or as shock factors.
I’m fine with ritualistic cannibalism some of the reviewers pointed out as shocking. In the second half of the XXth century eating one’s own ancestors was still practiced in parts of New Zealand, if one is to believe Jared Diamond, and I find no reason not to. I don’t think it’s much weirder than painting them, de-gassing them, putting them in metal, wood or glass boxes and interring them in the ground waiting for the inevitable feast of worms to come. So bring the ritualistic cannibalism on, if that is what floats your boat.
However, I’m very firmly against the mindless role reversal some of the feminists seem to prefer. It’s one thing, opposing the paternalistic patterns of behavior so common – and often very harmful – in our culture, but to contest it by a role reversal rooted in the most chauvinistic models ever encountered is something quite another. Hurley creates a society where females fill all the traditional male roles – they become rulers, warriors, priests, merchants, what have you. Men are either killed at puberty or kept alive to lead their lives as ornamental sex dolls without any chance to assert a will of their own. Well, my guess is that this facet of social diversity exists in the novel solely to get it straight in our collective face and yell: “how do you like it now, you chauvinistic pigs?!” There are rapes, self-abasement and self-mutilation, a very stereotypic sado-masochistic relation and something that looks curiously like an instance of the Stockholm syndrome. And the worst of it all is that it doesn’t serve any purpose related to the plot or character development. It’s just there as a page filler, or maybe a fulfilled vengeful fantasy, or a bid for a high shock factor payoff. Whichever role was it supposed to play, it doesn’t. More, just as in Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, it seriously detracts from The Mirror Empire’s value.
The last disappointment in my rather longish list was the grand finale. I haven’t seen such a dud in a long time. All that exposition, the long and labored setup of the stage – for a scene that was much too short, rushed, unimaginative, totally devoid of emotion and poorly written. Seems like a real waste of effort to me.
And yeah, you probably guessed it by now, language is another problem. The novel starts well enough, written in a simple yet engaging style. But two-thirds into it the small issues with the oversimplified language, word repetition and almost total lack of description start to pile up, only to go down in a glorious, crushing avalanche by the end of the book. If I were to venture a guess, I would say it’s sloppy editing and not enough time. But whatever the causes, in the end it just deteriorates the overall reader experience.
I doubt I will reach for the second installment in Hurley’s Worldbreaker Saga – the wonderful worldbuilding is already done, the scene is set, and whatever happens later seems bound to be less interesting than the beginning stages.