Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past… while a world goes to war with itself.
In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin.
As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress.
Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.
In the end, one world will rise – and many will perish.
Thoughts: I seem to be having a lot of luck lately when it comes to authors and novels that take old ideas, polish them up, and turn them into something jaw-droppingly amazing. The old idea of a parallel universe that mirrors our own in many ways is a concept that has been played with in many different ways over the years, but Hurley takes it one step to the left and not only creates a secondary fantasy world, but also the parallel universe for it, a universe that has diverged in history and now has its sights set on overcoming and conquering its mirror.
Take a moment to wrap your mind around that.
Hurley does an impressive amount of worldbuilding here, not just with places and powers (magic, for instance, comes from a person’s resonance with certain astrological bodies, which come and go in long cycles, which is a really good way of doing things and provides good and necessary balance for the book’s magical aspect), but from a cultural aspect, too. I loved reading about Dhai culture, the way their language — and thus, the people — handle gender (please, someone teach me that neutral pronoun so I can start applying it to myself!); familiar enough to be relatable, different enough to give readers pause to think. Most SFF novels take it for granted that there are only 2 genders and anything else is an aberration. It’s nice to see the idea of a greater number being used, even if the distinction is only between aggressive and passive versions of masculine and feminine, it addresses how language shapes identity and vice versa, and was a welcome touch.
A change in gender norms also allowed for an utterly fascinating take on sexuality and family units. It’s not just a matter of A marries B in the vast majority of cases but with a certain percentage of outliers. Sexuality is more fluid, at least in Dhai culture, and families with multiple husbands and wives are not merely tolerated, they’re entirely the norm. Things like this are what make The Mirror Empire shine bright, not relying on the perceived defaults of our own world’s societies but building new ones from the ground up. This makes the whole world feel so beautifully real, whole and well-structured, and it serves to highlight not only how we often don’t stop to think about things beyond our own experience (ie, things that “aren’t normal”), but also to show how our current ideas of normalcy aren’t required for a functioning and advancing society. In another of the book’s demonstrated cultures, our idea of typical gender roles are reversed, with females acting as strong warriors and males acting as subservient partners (at best).
There are so many layers of social and political commentary in The Mirror Empire, none of it heavy-handed and all of it superbly handled. You’re not beaten about the head with dogmatic proclamations of right and wrong, but you are made to think about your own ideals by seeing the ideals of other people, seeing norms and defaults get flipped upside down and sideways. It’s deft, and it’s the kind of thing that could have me running back to Hurley’s work even if I hadn’t enjoyed the general story as much as I did.
But there’s more than just good commentary and thought-provoking material in here. There’s a compelling story, and wonderfully interesting characters, all of whom grabbed me and none of whom made me want to skip past their viewpoints to get back to other aspects of the story. It’s a damaged world filled with semi-sentient carnivorous plants; how can you not be drawn in by that concept alone? There’s a dark moon rising and shifting the balance of power, there’s an alternate universe trying to take over, there’s a complex political situation running through the whole thing that affects more people than it first seems. This has all the hallmarks of a great story that will leave an impression on readers and be talked about for years to come.
(I feel like there’s so much more to say about this book, but also that whatever else I say will just end up being mildly incoherent fannish glee over how awesome it is and how much I enjoyed reading it. That’s what The Mirror Empire has reduced me to. The almost overwhelming urge to go, “Holy crap, this book was awesome and I love the author and you should all be reading this RIGHT NOW!”)
The Mirror Empire is a hefty book. It takes its time with you, letting things be revealed piece by intricate piece, and you need to take your time with it too, let it work its magic and draw you in. It’s a book I’d been looking forward to for months, and after all the building hype, it didn’t let me down. Yes, this is one of the rare books I can safely say lives up to the hype it’s given! If there’s any one fantasy novel you make a point of buying in September, it should be The Mirror Empire.
(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)