Let’s Talk About: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

I don’t really do book “reviews” per se, but I just finished Kameron Hurley’s latest novel, the epic fantasy The Mirror Empire. Since I have lots of thoughts (and feels too as the kids say) I figured I’d jot them down here in a loose sorta way. There will be some spoilers so read on at your own risk.

1. The Mirror Empire is the first book in the Worldbreaker Saga. Points for having a badass title and series name. This isn’t an in-depth thought. I just like the name.

2. As Justin mentions in his review, the world of The Mirror Empire starts in a state of flux–and flux seems to be the status quo for the world(s). The world of the story is orbited by “satellites” (moons? comets? actual man-made thingies? No clue and probably not important), and these satellites give certain people magical wizard powers. The closest comparison I can think of is the bending powers from Avatar: the Last Airbender. But each satellite also waxes and wanes at irregular intervals, so each wizard faction can gain and lose power at random. This means the worldview for almost every country in the world is based on change. It’s awesome how deep this theme of change permeates the book.

3. However, because everything is in a state of change–satellites, a bad moon rising so to speak, impending civil war, impending invasion (more on this later), it felt a little hard to get everything straight in the book. Plus, being epic fantasy, there are multiple point-of-view characters in The Mirror Empire. Keeping them straight, their allegiances, their friends and families, and even genders straight can be overwhelming at first. (This may also be partially user error as I tend to read right before bed, so sometimes I fall asleep reading)

4. Lots of stuff happens in The Mirror Empire, but at times, it felt like the opposite. It’s the first book in a trilogy (series?) so a lot of the stuff (heady, dare I say world-breaking even) can feel like setup for future books. There’re quite a few threads and by the end of the book it feels like they’re just starting to really tie together. But I get it, you can’t cover everything and you have to end a book somewhere otherwise it becomes a never ending tome.

Mirror Empire map

5. Hurley some really cool stuff with gender/gender roles in this book. So there’s an assassin that can change their biological sex at will or basically at will. So that character embodies the theme of change in the book. One culture has five different genders each with their own pronouns and an individual gets to decide how they view themselves and which gender they want to be referred as. Cool stuff!

5b. But it goes further than that. One of the cultures, Dorinah, is a matriarchy. So one of the POV characters is a high ranking general. Basically take all of the stereotypes you see male characters think about women in fantasy books (and elsewhere too!) and then flip them around. When you read a passage about this general catcalling a man and then thinking “Well, he just got upset because he doesn’t have a sense of humor,” it’s biting. It hits home because I’ve seen it in real life and on the internet. Women don’t have senses of humor; they’re too sensitive; can’t they just see that men are trying to compliment them? The Dorinah culture in The Mirror Empire flips this all around and man it makes for some caustic satire.

5c. That’s not to say that we’re supposed to read the general as 100% in the right. Or that readers shouldn’t criticize her actions or the actions of her nation. Hurley’s writing makes it clear that we’re supposed to engage all of this critically.

6. Rideable bears. With forked tongues, big-ass claws, and cat-like eyes. Seriously. Rideable bears. Read this book.

7. Alternate universes. That’s one of The Mirror Empire’s big hooks. It’s like Fringe meets epic fantasy meets plant-punk or something. It’s awesome but also a bit confusing. At times I couldn’t remember who was from what universe, and it’s mentioned in an off-hand way that there are more than two universes out there. So when people in World A mention invaders, I think they’re talking about World B. But then I swear people in World B mentioned invaders. Are they being invaded too? And really their invasion of World A is just another word for retreat? Cool stuff, a bit confusing, and I think it will be explored even more in future books.The Mirror Empire cover

8. The characters, especially the POV ones, didn’t quite grab me as much as those in Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha series. I get it though. As a writer you don’t want to just create the same main character over and over again. I appreciate that there’s a wide variety of personality types on display here, and all the characters have agency in their own way. Still, and this is just personal stuff (YMMW), I didn’t feel a huge connection to any of them. I think I cared about Lilia the most and probably Roh the least. I’d love to see more of Taigan too.

9. You can’t help but use the word “ambitious” to describe The Mirror Empire. It’s sprawling, but also personal at the same time. Occasionally the number of concepts thrown at you can be overwhelming, and for me, the characters didn’t quite hit the mark. But seriously, what else is like this on the market right now? I honestly can’t tell you. Despite a few flaws, you have to applaud Hurley’s ambition and the way she throws the reader into the deep end of everything. But unlike the Malazan books, I was never too lost that I gave up. In fact, I finished The Mirror Empire pretty damn quickly. The only bad thing about devouring it so fast is that I have a longer wait until book two comes out.

10. The Mirror Empire, her previous Bel Dame novels, plus her nonfiction collection, We Have Always Fought, only cement in my mind that Hurley is a writer to watch and one I want to learn from.

Reign on the CW

Let’s Talk About: Reign

Reign on the CW

I can’t shake the feeling that Reign is a trainwreck. It feels like the CW, seeing the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones, decided they wanted a piece of the medieval-costumed pie. (Though, I guess Reign takes place in the 16th century, so this is more Renaissance-ish than medieval, right?) They went through their roster of CW-esque actors and actresses and made a show. I feel like, costuming and set dressing aside, the cast of Reign is indistinguishable from say Vampire Diaries, or The Originals, or Star-Crossed.

So despite these misgivings, why can’t I turn away while this show is on? Let’s dive into that!

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mind map made with XMind

The Writing Process Blog Tour

mind map made with XMind

My good friend Gwen Whiting (formerly Perkins) asked me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour, and I was more than happy to say yes. Gwen’s written two novels in her Artifacts of Empire series: The Universal Mirror and The Jealousy Glass. Luckily for you readers, a second edition of The Universal Mirror is being published by Rara Avis sometime in 2014-2015. If you like fantasy, magic, and gruesome plagues, check out her series. I’ve also been lucky enough to read some of The Unwilling, and I can’t wait to see the end of it. Plus the premise is just killer.

So it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts and shared what I’m working on, so now’s as good a time as any! Here’s my answers to the questions posed to the authors on the tour.

1. What am I working on?

As of a few days ago I was working on two things: going over the edits for the 2nd edition of The Exile’s Violin and finishing the outline for a brand new fantasy novel tentatively called Red Magic.

The Exile’s Violin is set to be rereleased through PDMI’s Rara Avis imprint sometime later this year, so my editor and I went through it and cleaned up a few typos and other minor things from the Hydra Publications version. As far as I know the cover art isn’t going to change (which I’m happy about!) and work on Terraviathan should hopefully begin soon.

Red Magic came about because I wanted to attempt a twist on a common fantasy trope: mages and wizards. For the most part you hear wizard and you think Gandalf or Dumbledore. Mages are usually portrayed as aloof, purposely staying away from the population at large, using their magics for esoteric goals. Red Magic looks at the consequences of magic being withheld from the populace at large and plays with this question: what if something like a working class revolution was aided by magic?

Plus this book means I get to do a ton of research on the French Revolution, 17th and 18th century Europe, the Holy Roman Empire, and a bunch of other good stuff.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

That’s a tough question. I have a feeling my readers would be able to do a better job with that. Personally, I think that my worldbuilding abilities are one of my strong points. Everything I write is all secondary world fantasy or science fiction, so all of it has to be created from scratch (or mostly from scratch. The real world is an inspiration for certain things).

I believe that helps all my books feel different from each other. The world in the Tethys Chronicles is very, very different from The Song of Siya, and hopefully Red Magic will continue that trend.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I write to tell stories–human stories. Yeah my books may have airships or spaceships, but they’re always about people. Plus, I enjoy taking certain tropes and twisting them around a little bit. (Whether or not I succeed is up to the reader!) For example, Gifts of the Earth took sword and sorcery tropes and changed them by featuring a brown-skinned queer woman as the main character in a non Medieval Europe setting. For the Tethys Chronicles, they’re steampunk novels, but I wanted to avoid glorifying the imperialism of the Victorian era and hopefully show off a sooty, seedy underbelly to the whole notion of steampunk.

4. How does my writing process work?

Right now I’m between jobs so my schedule is really fluid. Ever since my wife and I moved to Portland, I like to get up in the morning, make some coffee, and write for an hour or so until she gets up. After that, I try to squeeze in some more writing time whenever I can in the afternoons or evenings. I used to be a night owl, but now I find myself becoming more of a morning person (as I write this post after midnight).

As far as how I approach a novel: I’m a major, major plotter/outliner/architect whatever you choose to call it. I start by creating a detailed, detailed plot outline. Sometimes they end up being over 40,000 words long. (Red Magic is 21,000) I don’t think they stifle my creativity because I’m really willing to move chapters around, change major plot beats, and rewrite characters during this outlining phase. I do all that early on rather than when I’m righting a rough draft. Having a complete story done in outline form makes writing the first draft go much quicker.

I also use a free program called XMind to create mind maps to keep track of my worldbuilding. I find it to be a useful tool for keeping track of characters, backstory, countries, cultures, food, weapons, basically anything. If you’re writing secondary world stories, you might want to give it a try. The header image of this post is a screencap of my Red Magic one.

Well that’s all from me! Sorry if this post ran a bit long. Like I said, it’s been a while since I’ve talked about what I’m working on. Thanks again to Gwen for tagging me for this blog tour!

Ancillary Justice

Challenge Accepted!

Ancillary Justice

I followed the Twitter conversations about The 52 Review’s “Best Of” post (I think this was last month or the month before). That’s when I first saw the challenge: only read genre fiction books written by women in 2014. Since then I’ve been caught in a morass of indecision.

I want to do it. I am going to do it. That’s not what I’ve been undecided about; I’ve been going back and forth whether or not I should tell anybody I’ve accepted this particular challenge.

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The Lord of the Rings: War in the North

Let’s Talk About: The Lord of the Rings: War in the North

The Lord of the Rings: War in the North

A “Quick Hits” style post today. I got The Lord of the Rings: War in the North from GameFly the other day, so let’s talk about it.

I’m only in the first chapter so these are more impressions than an actual review or anything like that.

First off the story: I get what the developers are trying to do–show a tale that runs parallel to the events of The Lord of the Rings (the movies specifically). The point is to emphasize that the war against Sauron was bigger and involved more of Middle Earth than people imagined. So therefore the developers invented some characters and said this is how they fought in the north, in the former Numenaran kingdom of Arnor. Apparently by keeping Sauron distracted in the north, they helped the Fellowship accomplish their mission.

So basically these guys are the Rogue Squadron on Hoth to the Fellowship’s transports and Millennium Falcon–fighting to buy time.

Problem is the characters are all boring. Maybe this is just a limitation of the source material, or the fault could be with me. I’m not 16 anymore (haven’t been for a while), and I don’t find the setting/story anywhere near as interesting.

The Lord of the Rings: War in the North gameplay

Plus it’s disconcerting to hear British accents everywhere and then the Dwarf main character sounds American. Kinda strange.

So you have three side characters, problem is none of them are interesting either. Again this could be a limitation of the setting: the “good guys” all have to be super good and noble and bland, while the “bad guys” embody evil (though they’re not too evil. Sauron’s supposed to be the really evil guy).

That’s really all I have about The Lord of the Rings: War in the North. It’s bland like plain toast. The art style does nothing special. Lots of brown and grey during the first few levels. Plus within the first couple of hours there were three or four turret sections. That’s kind of ridiculous in a game with supposedly medieval technology. Also boring. Needless to say, I shipped it back to GameFly with no misgivings.

Teen Wolf title card

Let’s Talk About: Teen Wolf

Teen Wolf title card

My wife (man that’s still weird to type) got me to watch Teen Wolf with her. Not the movie from the 80s but the “edgy, sexy, totally not Vampire Diaries but with Werewolves” MTV reboot. Okay, that was a little facetious. Despite some misgivings, I have to say that I walked away from the three seasons mostly impressed. There’s a few things that stuck with me that the series got right*, but then there are others that the show gets very, very wrong.**

*Note: I’m looking at this show from the perspective of a straight, white, cis male. It’s entirely possible that some of the things I liked about the series are extremely troubling, problematic, triggering, etc. to somebody else from a different background and I didn’t catch it because of my privileges. If that is the case, please let me know. And then there are the things I think the show gets wrong: if it appears that there are some problems I missed, or that my abbreviated analysis in this post doesn’t go far enough, please let me know.

**Another note: Also, there will be spoilers for all three seasons of Teen Wolf.

Things I Liked

Female Characters

At first I was unsure about Allison and Lydia. Not because they were “bad” characters, but I really hoped that they wouldn’t become just “the love interests.” I was wrong.

While Lydia starts off as one of the stereotypical “mean girls” similar to Cordelia in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it soon becomes apparent that she’s also the smartest person around. I can’t find the exact quote online, but it’s clear that she maintains her ditzy demeanor because of the way gender roles are policed and enforced in a high school social setting.

Lydia and Stiles Teen Wolf

Ambitious and possessing a genius-level intellect, these things make Lydia an important part of the show, and allow her to help out main character Scott time and time again. Oh, and she’s also a Banshee (though the extent of her powers according to the show’s mythology remains to be seen). Too bad she, Allison, and Stiles aren’t the main characters.

Allison is basically the Hawkeye of the show. She starts out more as the conventional love interest for Teen Wolf Scott (yeah I called him Teen Wolf for most of my time watching the show). Her family belongs to a long line of werewolf hunters, but of course she’s been left in the dark so she can have a normal childhood “until she’s ready.” One of those kind of deals.

But as soon as she becomes immersed in the world of the supernatural, her badassery comes into play. Time after time she tells Scott that she can take care of herself. Typical for this kind of show, right? ‘Cause of course she’d say that, but in reality she’d need saving, right? Not this time! Remember how I called her Hawkeye? Yeah. Allison is an extremely skilled archer, and she ends up saving her friends’ lives with her marksmanship and fighting skills.

Allison Argent Teen Wolf

Also, according to her family’s traditions, the women are the strategic leaders while the men Hunters are trained to follow their plans. So by the end of season three, Allison is basically in charge of the Argent family (though greatly diminished by death, suicide, and failed werewolf-ification). She’s seemingly portrayed as the hero’s love interest at the beginning, but ends up a fully fledged Hunter, leader, and expert archer by the end of season three. Oh yeah. She also breaks up with Scott partially because he keeps trying to control her in order to “keep her safe.”

Scott’s mom, Melissa McCall, also deserves a special mention. Single mother, loves her son, works hard to provide for her family, and she even accepts Scott’s werewolfitude fairly quickly once she finds out. Too bad she doesn’t get more screen time or is used as bait by the Big Bads to get Scott’s attention.

Others posts disagree have issues with the characterization of Lydia, Allison, and the other women on the show. They raise good points that I agree with. However, I wanted to focus on aspects of these two characters that I enjoyed. That does not mean that they are perfectly characterized or that the writers of the show can’t improve.

Consent

Speaking of Scott and Allison, here’s the second thing I was impressed with: consent (at least in regards to sexual intimacy between Scott and Allison). In season one, there’s the first big “Make Out, Take Off Each Other’s Clothes” type scene between Scott and Allison. As they’re making out, Scott stops and asks if she wants to continue. She looks him in the eye, and even though she turns the question back on him, it’s clear she’s in control of the situation and it’s what she wants.***

***A third note: However, this post brings up something I completely didn’t think about. Allison says yes to sexual intimacy with Scott under the impression that he’s human and not a werewolf. When looked at that way, she says yes without having important information disclosed to her. While I contend that her breaking up with Scott because “he continues not to talk to her about things because he decides it’s better for her” is a nice bit of characterization in her favor, I can see how it’s problematic from a consent standpoint. My points here also don’t address Teen Wolf’s other issues with consent (i.e. werewolf bites, Peter’s actions towards Lydia). I’m only focusing on something I noticed on my first watch of the series.

And the scene continues. However, rather than removing Allison’s shirt to show her in a bra, her bare back, whatever (possibly problematic because I believe the characters are under 18 in that season), the show has her taking off Scott’s shirt. The camera lingers on his abs and bare chest while the two of them continue to make out. There’s a bit where they remove Allison’s bra beneath her shirt, but Scott is the focus of most of the scene’s “gratuitous” nature. It made the scene feel different and not as “male gaze” centric.

The way the scene was shot and written, there was no coercion, no uncertainty, just a strong assertion that yes she wanted to keep making out and move on to more. Because Teen Wolf is on MTV and marketed at teens, it made me happy to see this scene. Trying to change the way our culture views women, sex, and consent needs to start with how we teach our children. And one of the ways to do that is through popular culture. People reproduce what they see and experience. Maybe I’m missing an important part of this scene because of my privileges, but to me, it was a point in Teen Wolf’s favor.

Stiles

And finally, one of the best things about Teen Wolf is Stiles. He’s Scott’s best friend and pretty much the heart of the show. Think Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer but minus the misogyny. Okay, maybe that’s not quite an apt comparison. Considering how much research he does to help Scott fare better against the show’s evil monsters, he’s probably closer to Willow than Xander. Either way, Stiles is funny, irreverent sometimes, and one of the few characters who recognizes Lydia’s intellect, i.e. in “Formality.” But he does it in a way that doesn’t come across as a Nice Guy™.

Stiles bus Teen Wolf

I can write off part of his years-long crush on Lydia as teenage angst (and this is a show on MTV after all), but for the most part, Stiles treats her with respect. While he does like her in a romantic way, whenever he helps her, it doesn’t feel like (to me) he’s doing it just to put in some kindness tokens into her womanly vending machine**** in order for a sexual payout further down the line. I hope the show keeps them out of a romantic relationship for multiple reasons, the main one being it would feel too much like a “proper reward” for being nice.

****A fourth note for ya: Also read the essay “Toward a Performance Model of Sex” linked in the vending machine article.

Things I Didn’t Like

Fridged Women & PoC? You’re Going to Die

These two issues kind of go hand in hand. Basically if you’re a person of color, especially a woman, on this show your days are numbered.

Every season has at least one woman of color who gets killed, and they’re usually the only women of color on the show. A couple of deputies (that get names posthumously) are murdered. Another woman who helps Isaac (a white male) escape from two Alpha werewolves is killed. We don’t find out her name until many episodes later.

Seriously it got so bad that any time a woman of color appeared on the screen, I’d turn to my wife and say “I bet the show kills her.” I realize that’s a terrible thing to say, and it’s extra, extra terrible when my facetious comment would end up being true! And most of these women are all killed in order to make the male protagonists feel bad.

Derek Teen Wolf Man Pain

Of course, it’s not limited to women. Boyd is the token black werewolf. We learn next to nothing about his backstory. And then he gets killed in order to give Derek exquisite man pain.

Erica, a young woman who goes from epilepsy-suffering pariah at school to bombshell after receiving the werewolf bite, gets killed off-screen. Literally in season three the characters find her body after she’s “been missing for months.” Her death is used for Boyd’s man pain, and then when he dies on-screen episodes later, both deaths are only emphasized through the lens of Derek’s man pain and man tears.

So you have women of color dying left and right, including one who’s part of the Big Bad Alpha Pack. You have other women fridged. Danny, a queer PoC character (who for the most part is written well) barely gets screen time. Boyd dies after being thinly written.

Kali and Morell Teen Wolf

Tyler Posey, the actor who plays main character Scott, is part Mexican, and he says that Scott shares his heritage. However, the show never acknowledges his background. If I hadn’t looked up Posey on Wikipedia and saw a gif where he said Scott is Latino, I wouldn’t have known. That’s not to say that Scott needs to act “browner” or some other racist garbage, but it’s important to note that his Latino heritage is never officially acknowledged in the show’s canon. However, the main cast is very white and almost all of the persons of color on the show either support them or end up being thrown to the wolves.

So What’s Next?

Teen Wolf comes back for part two of season three in 2014. I’m going to watch because I found it compelling (and definitely cheesy in parts), but it’s not a perfect show. Who knows, after all the articles I read while writing this post, I feel like the creators, writers, and producers have to know that there are problematic aspects that fans (and not fans too) are picking up on. Maybe pieces like the ones linked to in this article will help the next season be better and emphasize the positive parts that stood out to me and others.

The Exile's Violin

The Exile’s Violin Giveaway on Goodreads

Since I have some extra copies of The Exile’s Violin at home taking up space on my kitchen table, I decided to autograph them and give them away on Goodreads! The contest will run from now until May 20th, which happens to be my birthday. If you win it’ll be like I’m giving you a birthday present!

All you have to do is head over to the The Exile’s Violin‘s page on Goodreads and click the enter to win button under the “Win a Copy of This Book” section. You fill out your address and you’re done! It’s that simple. If you win, you’ll be notified when the contest ends, and I’ll mail your new book to you.

Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero and Creating a Sense of Place

Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero

I feel it’s part of my job as a science fiction and fantasy writer to create a sense of place. What does that even mean? Here’s how I’d describe it: it’s more than just creating another world (if you write secondary world fantasy). It’s about making sure you capture an essence, a feeling about the place. If you can’t do that, then I think you let your readers down.

Personally, I think I did that with The Exile’s Violin and the Tethys Chronicles in general. Vorleaux, to me, has a corrupt heart of haze-coated brass and bronze. I think that sense of place permeates all the scenes that take place in the city and even influence how main character Jacquie reacts to the world around her.

Still, I want to do better, to truly feel deep in my bones that I’ve written a place with a sense of place. I don’t care if that sentence is reductive and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Part of the reason that this is such a big deal to me is I feel like I come from somewhere without a sense of place. I live in the suburbs of San Diego, and I’ve lived in suburbs of one city or another. Maybe I’m just not looking hard enough, but I read things or play games like the brilliant Kentucky Route Zero and see how brilliantly the creators are able to evoke a sense of place.

I’ve never been to Kentucky, but after playing that game, I feel like the locations in the game could really exist out there in the backwoods of coal country. The visuals, the aesthetic, and the music–oh God, the music–all work together to make me feel like I’ve been taken to somewhere real even though I’ve never left my desk chair.

I want to make something like that. This isn’t envy I feel in my bones right now. It’s a desire to be able to so effortlessly* make my reader understand the soul of my place and my work/novel/game/whatever. So my hat’s off to  the two men at Cardboard Computer for what they’ve accomplished with just Act I of their game. My hat’s off to all the writers out there who’ve done what I’m still striving to do.

*I know effortlessly isn’t the right term. It takes a ton of skill and craft to pull something like that off and make it appear effortless to the reader or player.

The Exile's Violin 200x300

My “Next Big Thing” inspired by Carrie Cuinn’s post

I just heard about this “Next Big Thing”–thing on Carrie Cuinn’s blog. If you haven’t read hers yet, go do it. Two words: magic apocalypse. Then go read all the others she links to. You won’t be disappointed.

So how does this Next Big Thing work? You’re supposed to answer ten questions about your current WIP novel, short story, anthology, screenplay, etc. You get the idea. So what am I working on? Glad you asked.

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