Book Review – THE MIRROR EMPIRE by Kameron Hurley

There was a lot of pressure, riding on the shoulders of this book. Hype surrounding it was everywhere, on all of the review blogs that I follow, on Twitter, on podcasts–pretty much everywhere. And I was worried. I’m not going to lie. I didn’t make it through GOD’S WAR, by Kameron Hurley. Maybe I was a different reader, then. Maybe I didn’t give it a chance. Or maybe it just wasn’t for me, but I just couldn’t get into it.

THE MIRROR EMPIRE felt different, right from the first page. And I don’t just mean different from GOD’S WAR, which it obviously is (SF vs. Epic Fantasy, etc.). No. I mean that this book was different from anything I have ever read, before. The world was truly (TRULY) unique, the sociological aspects were incredibly diverse and fresh, the characters were unlike any that I’ve ever read, before. Except, of course, that they weren’t. What Hurley does with gender and the flip that she does to genre tropes is nothing short of astonishing. It is breathtaking. It is brilliant. It is… a bit daunting.

To be honest, I couldn’t have gotten through this book, even a year ago. I am a better educated reader than I was, then. I couldn’t have gotten through this book, before I read “We Have Always Fought,” Hurley’s Hugo Award-Winning Essay about gender in narratives. I couldn’t have gotten through this book before I read ANCILLARY JUSTICE. I’m still, even now, digesting the depth and breadth of what Hurley has done, here, with THE MIRROR EMPIRE, and maybe I will be, for a long, long time.

And maybe that’s the point.

The story–at it’s very heart–isn’t one that we haven’t heard, before. An orphan must become the Chosen One. A stern, military hero must soften, and find their heart. A person, unsuited to rule, must do just that. These are things that we have seen, and read, countless times, before. But Hurley makes you question everything you know about this story. She makes you doubt your memory of those narratives. She makes you want better.

Are there things that I’d change about this book? Yes. I found it dense, and in some places, confusing. I (ridiculously) didn’t like some of the names, and I had a hard time keeping them straight. I could remember their actions and their story line, but for me, their names didn’t fit. That’s a personal, stupid thing that I didn’t give any bearing to, in this review, because that’s my brain, working against the story line. I’d have liked more of some story lines, and less of others–but again, all personal tastes.

What I wouldn’t change–what I found amazingly fresh and inventive and beautiful–was the world building. I just want to wallow in Hurley’s notebooks, where she’s plotting out the plant-based public transit, developing the carnivorous species of plants that walk the forests, laying out the many genders and societies and governments and religions. I want to flip through the card file with the information about the different worlds that mirror the one that most of the story is told in. I want more, because it is clear that Kameron Hurley has been living in this world for a good, long while, and she must have volumes of glorious, intricate detail. I wouldn’t change the uncomfortable scenes of sexual dominance, where our militaristic, matriarchal character literally “manhandles” her kept husband–a man who is pampered so that he’ll remain soft and desirable. A man who is later treated quite horrifically, in ways that we have seen female characters treated innumerable times. I wouldn’t change the physically disabled protagonist, who despite her body, uses her mind to solve dilemma after dilemma. I wouldn’t change the relationships and the tenderness, the violence and the betrayal, and I wouldn’t change the feeling that I had at the end–

Which is to say, “There must be more, and I want it, now.”

This book isn’t for the faint at heart, and it isn’t for the occasional fantasy reader. This book is hard core, but it is beautiful in its hardness, and it is well worth the time and effort and occasionally feeling as if you are stupider than everyone else in the world, as you work your way through it. And for what its worth, if she hasn’t won the award, already, I’m voting for Kameron Hurley for smartest person in the room.

Next up, I’m reading CITY OF STAIRS by Robert Jackson Bennett.

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