Monday, August 04, 2014

Review: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Fantasy is the genre where anything is possible and that is one of the biggest reasons why so many of us read it. Yet fantasy, and Iet’s focus on epic fantasy for this discussion, tends to shackle itself with rules. Most mimic in one way or another what has come before. Most take inspiration from historic cultures of our own world (particularly Western societies) and build that inspiration into a set of rules to adhere to. Often those rules are not based on any factual part of history, but perceived aspects of history that never actually existed.

Why do fantasy peoples form the frozen north have to be Vikings? Why do those frozen lands have to be north? Why do people from the south/desert always have to be Muslim/Jewish analogs? Why are temperate climates European analogs? Why is a tropical environment populated by African or Mayan analogs? Why in a fantasy world do people ride horses into battle? Why not bears…with forked tongues? Why can’t trees chase you down and eat you? Etc.

For all the freedom that the genre offers, the vast majority of it shackles itself in rules. The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) chooses differently. This fantasy world feels alien – there are sentient plants who will eat you, people do indeed ride bears with forked tongues, the traditional ‘castle’ just may be a sentient organic construct, etc. The cultures of the world do not (at least at first glance) bear any resemblance to historic cultures of our own world*. The societies are different, the people bear little resemblance (in race, ethnicity, and cultural construction) to the past or present of the real world. Hurley builds a world that is a true fantasy – a brilliant fantasy that actually embraces the possibilities it presents rather than limits itself by so-called rules of the past.

To continue with the rhetorical questions I mentioned above, why do the gender politics of our current society have to be present? Fantasy can have dragons bonding magically with riders who battle trolls and elves and whatever else – but women have to be in their place because that’s the way it’s always been. Men rape women because that’s the way it was in history. Women don’t fight and are often little more than the property of men because that what history (supposedly) tells us. This books calls all that out for the bullshit it is.

Hurley creates a variety of nations and societies that are often matriarchic. Or consent. Or some other organizational structure that simply doesn’t fit in with what our society tells us is the way things are. She rams this rail spike of point home – repeatedly. In one society, men are weak, they are property – it is the mirrored reflection of those ‘traditional’ societies of our own world. Gender roles are reversed and sometimes completely deconstructed. Gender isn’t binary and not even a 5 gendered society makes everyone feel welcome. Does it feel wrong? Does it make you uncomfortable? Do you question? Should you take a long hard look in the mirror? Yes! That’s the point. It’s driven in hard, it’s overdone. It comes complete with the gratuitous rape of man by women – the same sort that is so often unnecessarily present in other fantasy books and is (thankfully) being called out more often for the bullshit it is. Of course, is it bullshit in this book when used in the same? Is it hypocritical? Yes, but unfortunately it’s a point that still needs to be made.

With The Mirror Empire, Hurley celebrates the open canvas that is fantasy. There are no rules except the ones imposed on it by us and this book tosses those away. Yes, there is an agenda, a fuck you to the imposed ‘fantasy norms’ and the oppressing culture of our own (in my original notes for this review, I coined a new term for this – epic rantasy – originally a typo, but a movement I’m sure will catch on). But it’s also a celebration. A textbook on what can be done if you free yourself of the imposed limits.

The Mirror Empire is bold, courageous, unapologetic, and at times, angry. In short, it’s damn near unpublishable – kudos to Angry Robot for taking a chance on this one. While I don’t think this will ever be a book that is considered a great success, I do think it’s a book that should be read, particularly as an example how to remove the box of epic fantasy. I can also imagine that there will be a temptation to limit this book – to catalog it as feminist, or queer, or some other specialized form of epic fantasy that are ultimately attempts to silence it as something different and segregate from the ‘usual’ epic fantasy. I really hope that readers, booksellers, and fans refuse to let that happen. This is epic fantasy, just epic fantasy that has removed traditional boundaries.

In The Mirror Empire, two ‘mirror’ worlds begin to collide, and my reaction to this book is the same – two mirrored visions (unhappily) collide. There is the beautiful image of Hurley’s creation that I describe above, and its reflection that I describe below, a reflection from a carnival mirror complete with confounding distortions.

For all the bold, brilliant creativity that goes into the world, as a story, the story of The Mirror Empire suffers. This is a dense book with a slow start. Very slow. I felt very little about the characters – essentially no investment. That makes it a challenge to want to read the book – a challenge to enjoy anything about the book. In all honesty, if had been another author, I suspect I wouldn’t have finished the book – but there was all that I rave about above, so I had to see it through.

The names are confusing (which I suspect is more of a product of the absolute mess that is the first act of this book and not the names themselves). There are too many point of view characters** – the book losses focus as it tries to introduce and bring to some form of conclusion a few too many threads. Places are confusing and the geography confounds (note: I read an early copy of this book without the benefit of the map and glossary of the final so hopefully others will not find this the challenge that I did – though I stand by my belief that a map and/or glossary should never be necessary for the success of a book).

Simply put, the story failed to provide the motivation for me to keep reading to see what would happen next.

I keep seeing the word ‘challenging’ used to describe The Mirror Empire. Sure, I see that, there is a lot of challenge in this book. But that should not be confused with the mess that is its story. It’s a challenge to calculate all of the optical physics that describe the reflection of a curved mirror, it’s a (bloody) mess to try and re-construct a shattered mirror (that’s missing a few pieces).

So, The Mirror Empire is a mixed bag. Two images – one the idealized intent, the other the reflected reality. It’s a brilliant exploration of what fantasy can truly be when boundaries are not slammed in place. It’s also wreck of a story that never really pulls itself together. Did I like it? Did I enjoy it? Yes and No. Will I read the second book in the series? Maybe – I haven’t decided yet. The first book never quite sold me, but I so want this to succeed (in large part due to all that I began this review with). We’ll see – I may just have to look into my mirror and begin with those classic words…

Note on this review: Notice how I didn’t really discuss the plot or the characters or anything that actually happens in this book? Use the back cover or another review for that if that’s what you’re after, but I simply found no need to discuss these. Make of that what you will.

*However, I suspect that inspiration for the clan-based structure of the Dhai was in part from clan/tribal organizations of southern Africa, but that is really an aside.

**I find it quite amusing that this book, this book that has so much to say about epic fantasy, falls right into the same trap that so many do – too many point of view characters.


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