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.

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!

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.

Continue reading Challenge Accepted!

Why Don’t You Just Write Genre X?

White People Almost Kissing Nicholas Sparks

This post is inspired by a short conversation I had with Robert Jackson Bennett on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. It went a little something like this:

This led to his response: “jesus christ.” And then a link to a hilarious image like the one you see above. “White People Almost Kissing” the brand-new novel by Nicholas Sparks. And now for the whole story about my conversation with my mom and some commentary.

I went out to dinner with my mom the other day. In between our main course and the spring roll appetizers–I also decided during this dinner that I don’t care for spring rolls–and with the best intentions she asked me: “Why don’t you try to write a romance? Something like Nicholas Sparks. He’s such a good writer.”

She meant well. She sees me struggling to pay bills and make a living as a writer and thinks that if I just wrote something in a mega-popular genre like romance that the money, movie deals, and all the other trappings of fame would just roll in. I’d probably have to turn away studio after studio that wanted to turn one of my books into a trans-media property. Because romance is popular. Because science fiction and fantasy aren’t as popular. Because she “doesn’t really like sci-fi but she liked my book.”

Here’s the problem with that line of thinking–chasing what you think the mass market wants–you’ll always be chasing after something that’s constantly changing. Maybe you’re one of those authors who’s able to flit from genre to genre with ease. I’m not. My bread and butter is genre fiction: speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and maybe even a tiny bit of horror.

I try to move around within genre fiction–a sci-fi short story here, a horror story there, two steampunk novels, a sword & sorcery novel in the works, and several abandoned space opera novels. But it’s all within what I like to write.

Science fiction wallpaper

That’s the important part–liking what you write. Because I feel strongly about my stories, my characters, my genres, it comes through in my writing. Would The Exile’s Violin and its sequel have worked as, say, a paranormal romance? I have no idea, but I can guarantee the book because I don’t write paranormal romances.

So you can imagine how awful the results would be if I tried to right a contemporary romance novel for purely commercial reasons. Or maybe it wouldn’t have been awful per se. I like to think I have a tiny bit of skill that when combined with proper revisions, working with beta readers, etc. could produce something half readable. A better term for the resulting paranormal romance manuscript: soulless.

That’s what happens you write something to chase commercial acceptance. Or at least, that’s what would happen if I tried it. Maybe some authors are able to make that work. I’m not one of them.

I have to write what I want to write. Otherwise, why bother writing it at all? So the next time somebody says, “Genre X is much more popular than genre Y. Why don’t you just write genre X?” I’ll reply, “Because I like writing genre Y.” ‘Nuff said.

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 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.

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.

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

Artwork for my upcoming short story collection

Daaaamn. That’s all I gotta say. I recently commissioned artist Westly LaFleur to illustrate the cover for my upcoming short story collection, Flowers of the Sky. Oh, that’s right. Guess I should mention that. Since I got the rights back to “Flowers of the Sky: Discoveries,” I decided to pair it with its sequel “Flowers of the Sky: Dreamer’s Gaze” in one ebook short story collection.

I knew if I was serious about self-publishing this mini-collection I’d need an awesome cover. Wes stepped up big time. I can’t be happier with it. I’ll let you know more about Flowers of the Sky as more developments come up. But for now, gaze upon Wes’ art! Gaze! If you’re in the market for some illustrations, especially of the fantasy variety, contact Wes. Here’s some more samples of his art.

Flowers of the Sky - Cover Art