Novel * Kameron Hurley * Multi-Dimensional Apocalypse * 2014
I used to read a lot of epic fantasy. Thanks, J.R.R. I’ve pretty much stopped reading this particular sub-genre after accepting that The Winds of Winter is never going to materialize and that I should just move on. If I’m being real, even A Song of Ice and Fire was a rare thing for me. I cannot stand the phrase “I grew out of it,” but I really did stop reading epic fantasy in my early 20’s. That’s not because I stopped enjoying extravagantly imagined worlds, though, and that’s an important distinction. When people use the phrase “I grew out of” whatever, be it D&D, or pop-punk, or whatever the fuck, they’re basically saying that they’re embarrassed of who they used to be. Now, if that aspect of your personality was, say, being a racist, then good. If it’s because your imagination died and now all you read are how-to-do-good-at-business books, that’s less good. Personally, I moved away from epic fantasy novels for three reasons. One, video games got to the point where they fill the void of richly imagined worlds. Two, I am trying to write it, and I don’t want my processes overly influenced by other writers. Three, fuck The Wheel of Time.
That goddamn series is everything wrong with high fantasy. Every trope, every cliché. You got your peasant “chosen one.” You got your sassy sidekicks and grouchy mentors. They use invented swears instead of just saying “fuck.” Every volume of that endless series is a thousand pages long. None of that is the worst of it, though. Oh no. As we’ve seen in a recent article, tropes and archetypes can work if done well, and if a world is worth living in the length is a plus. Invented swears are never okay, but if everything else works, then they’re more of a minor annoyance than anything else. The Wheel of Time is guilty as shit of all those other things, but the unforgivable sin Robert Jordan (rest his verbose soul) commits is that each thousand-page volume never actually goes anywhere. Characters don’t grow, the plot barely moves. There is never any momentum, there’s always some other fucking thing that needs to happen before we get anywhere. Now, you can make the same accusations of George R.R. Martin, especially of the last couple of novels. However! Even when the plot seems to be spinning out of control, the characters are at least changing. The Jamie from Game of Thrones is vastly different from where he’s at later on in the series. All the people in The Wheel of Time just go around and around and very little changes. Mostly I’m mad it took me like seven books before I stopped reading the fucking things.
After that, my worry was that all high fantasy would fall into the same trap. I flirted with other authors, of course. Tad Williams is okay, although I prefer his Otherland books to his pure fantasy novels. Outside of Martin’s ridiculously popular books, however, nothing’s really resonated. Still, I am who I am, and on my last visit to Powell’s, I found myself wanting to read a novel with a map in the front. What I found, The Mirror Empire, is pretty much the antithesis of all that bullshit The Wheel of Time exemplifies. There are some archetypes, there are some clichéd situations. Fine, fine, Hurley is working within a template. However, the characters all feel like actual people, and that’s an important difference. They get the shit kicked out of them by life and they grow. Their perspectives are challenged and they change. There are shades of goddamn grey. Beyond that, the world Hurley has created is strikingly original. I might actually argue the world-building is a little too convoluted, but mostly it’s refreshing. Oh, and there are no fictional swear words.
One more thing before we get to the break and I speak more candidly about the story. The Mirror Empire is very good, but it also takes a while to come to terms with its world. There’s a lot going on here. High fantasy always starts slowly, and it always takes some time to get acclimated to a new world, and this is no different. However, even once you get used to the fantasy names (which are at least shorter and easier to deal with than many in this space, plus there’s no obnoxious exercises in gratuitous punctuation) and start to get a handle on the various cultures, there’s still more to figure out here. Most importantly, there’s multiple realities to deal with. Thus the “mirror” of Mirror Empire. Then there’s the magic system, which is based on the multiple moons of this fantasy planet. Then there’s the gender thing, since each nation has a different system of gender identity and a different way of treating their citizens. Like, it’s broadly a matriarchy, but there are many different ways to parse all that. Sexuality is a dang free-for-all. So before you pick this up, understand that there’s work by the reader to be done. I would say it’s worth it though, at least this first volume. I’m excited to see where it goes. Now, specifics.
The preferred method of acclimating your reader to your new world, at least for me, is to just chuck them into the deep end head first. Otherwise you’re spending time reading a bunch of dry exposition while nothing happens and you alienate readers. Now, Tolkien gets a pass on this because he is basically the creator of the genre, and also, there’s a ton of people who just can’t get into those books. Which is fine, even if they’re wrong. That said, I’ve found the best way to get people into your new world is to simply immerse them. The characters should carry your world anyway, and the characters should be pretty well used to living in the world they’re in. Eventually, the reader will come to understand what everyone in the novel takes for granted. Depending on how complicated the new universe is, and how different it is from our own world, it can take a couple hundred pages to get with the program. Meanwhile, if the book is any good, the story should be moving along. The Mirror Empire does exactly this. The plot gets rolling immediately, and it’s up to the reader to keep up or not. This might alienate a certain kind of reader, but with so many new concepts in play it’s really the only way.
The Mirror Empire is an ensemble novel, so if you’re used to A Song of Ice and Fire-style narration, this is that. If there is a principal character, it’s probably Lilia. She’s introduced in the prologue, after all, where some horrible shit happens to her as a little girl and she barely escapes certain death and finds herself in an unfamiliar country. Lilia is archetype-adjacent. After the prologue there is a time skip and we catch up with her as an older teenager, hanging out with her bestie Roh. She’s all fucked up. Lilia has asthma and a jacked-up foot due to her misfortune as a kid. She lives and works as a housekeeper in a temple full of magic-sensitive kinda-not-really wizards. The magic system in this book is a whole thing, which I’m not really going to get into. It’s cool, but all the characters take this stuff for granted and it takes a while to figure out just what some of these people are capable of.
Lilia and Roh live in a country called Dhai, which is one of three major nations in this world. It’s at this point where the reader has to really pay attention, because each of these nations all have very different social structures. The Dhai are basically pacifists, and they have six recognized genders. Non-consensual touching of any kind (including something as innocuous as a tap on the shoulder) is taboo. Dhai has a complicated leadership structure, but they’re currently ruled by a reluctant leader named Ahkio. The country next door, Dorinah, is a violent matriarchy comprised of magic-enabled warrior slavers. One of these warriors, Zezili, is a principal character who gives us some insight into this fucked up country. The third major power is a northern country called Saiduan, which is more of a patriarchy, although they have three genders and one of the most powerful, influential people in the country is a woman. Of course, once I had all that straightened out, The Mirror Empire starts throwing multiple worlds into the mix.
Saiduan is under siege by a vicious army from a different version of the world. In that version, the Dhai are raging, blood-thirsty warriors who have come pouring through a tear in reality to wreak havoc in the world-next-door. The three nations all have very different ways of dealing with this external threat, but the underlying issue with the invading force is pretty simple. You cannot travel to the mirror world if that version of yourself is still alive, and the mirror world is about to be destroyed. Therefore, in order to survive, the mirror Dhai feel they need to genocide everyone so that they can survive. Those being genocided are not cool with it, as you might imagine. Look, I don’t have the space here to get real deep into the characters or the narrative. I didn’t even mention the semi-sentient, people-eating plants that cover the world! Hurley is doing a lot of really cool things, but a deeper look at those things is going to have to wait until the next volume. The ending to The Mirror Empire is satisfying in itself, but also pretty much ensures I’m on board for the entire series. If you’re down for a new world, you could do a lot worse.