Book Review: The Mirror Empire (The Worldbreaker Saga #1) by Kameron Hurley (published by Angry Robot)
The Mirror Empire confused the crap out of me! But the worldbuilding was refreshingly unique and weird. So, although some of the time I wasn’t sure entirely what was going on in this epic grimdark fantasy, I really enjoyed it.
Stick with me whilst I try to break this book down… It is set in a world (lets call it world 1) where the main action happens in three countries: Dhai, Saiduan and Dorinah. These three countries have a troubled relationship. The Dhai people were once all slaves and a rebellion 500 years in the past established the country of Dhai. It has a matriarchy although the new ruler is a man. Dorinah is a fierce matriarchal society led by an Empress where men are treated as objects and possessions. The country still has Dhai slaves. Saiduan is led by a male patron and is currently being invaded by a brutal, seemingly unstoppable force.
HOWEVER, there is a second world/parallel universe, or mirror world, (world 2) that has the same people in it but has a different past. This second world is where the ruthless invaders in Saiduan are coming from. These invaders also want to take over Dhai and Dorinah.
The plot is basically how the three countries in world 1 come to realise about world 2 and work together, or not, to try to stop its invasion as well as deal with lots of internal issues and political wrangling in their own countries. Where this gets confusing is that we have multiple POV characters from each of these three countries – so many I can’t face going back in the book to count them. And some characters are both in world 1 and in world 2. These characters all have similar names and all sound exactly the same – there is zero distinctive voice to distinguish them (at least, imo).
The two most memorable ones for me include Lilia, a young girl who is in Dhai in world 1 but comes from world 2 and made a promise to her mother to find her again. But Lilia is wanted by Taigan, an assassin from Saiduan, to aid his/her own country (Taigan’s body changes from male to female). Gian also wants Lilia (but I was never clear which world Gian came from or why she wanted the girl?! And who was the Gian at the end?!). Lilia is a stubborn brat and does her own thing. Secondly, Zezili a female captain from Dorinah who, although vicious, loves her pet of a husband. She goes rogue. I didn’t actually like either of these characters, but was entertained by them.
It was the crazy weird world that I liked reading about: the matriarchal society in Dorinah that treats men like, well, like women are generally treated in most fantasy novels. They are secondary to the women, are stay at home husbands with zero responsibility and not able to travel without a female guardian, are uneducated and aim to look meek and pretty - Zezili’s husband wears a corset to keep his waist slim. The women are cruel and unforgiving.
There are also interesting takes on gender. In Dhai there are five genders and each person gets to pick theirs: female-assertive, female-passive, male-assertive, male-passive and ungendered. In Saiduan there are three: male, female and ataisa.
The plantlife is also alive and sentient walking trees thump around the landscape destroying things, as well as plants that try to eat people. The homes in Dhai are mostly made from living things that have been twisted and coaxed into buildings by magic. There is also a ‘Line’ made from vines and plants that people take to get from place to place.
Ah yes, the magic. Those who are gifted can draw magic from the four moons/stars/heavenly bodies in the sky, but only when their star is ‘in ascendant’ otherwise their power is weak. The three main stars come and go in the sky every decade or so, but the fourth star, Oma, comes around every few centuries and those who can channel Oma are very powerful. And when Oma is in ascendant bad things happen in the worlds. It’s on the rise, which is why the people from world 2 are now invading world 1.
I was pleased that there is a glossary at the back of this book as I referred to it continually to remind myself who was who and where was what. I found some of the scenes to be pointless (Luna falling through ice, Zezili’s husband’s escapade) and some of the writing to be frustrating when the same word was repeated multiple times in quick succession (e.g. in the prologue, ‘fence’ is used six times on the first page) and also when a character’s name was used over and over instead of the pronoun. Plus, there were some unanswered things – how did Zezili get so easily back from world 2 to world 1 to face the Empress? And why wasn’t the world 2 leader more pissed off with her?!
This is a book that I’ll likely remember for a while. I recommend it to those who want a change from the standard, textbook fantasy worlds and who aren’t intimidated by a huge cast of characters.
I read this book as part of my list of 20 SFF books I want to read with a matriarchal society. You can check out that post here.
My rating: 4/5
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**My debut novel, an epic grimdark fantasy called MELOKAI, is out now! Available from Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play Books, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords. Read more about my books here.**
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