R.S. Hunter

Science Fiction & Fantasy Author

Tag: epic fantasy

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.

My Response to “On (Moral) Fantasy Fiction II” and Others

Yesterday I read a fascinating post called “On (Moral) Fantasy Fiction II” by Paul Charles Smith that looked at different types of morality in epic or heroic fantasy. He talks about how there’s a difference in Tolkien’s writing when he was writing in a “tragic mode” or when he was writing The Lord of the Rings. It was a highly insightful look into shifts between a “shame” based culture and a “guilt” based culture. I recommend you read it.

In the article Smith mentions that he was partly inspired by the double review of Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin in Strange Horizons back in 2007.

In the review, reviewer Adam Roberts states that Rothfuss’ book doesn’t quite pan out because of the fact that it’s “medieval trappings” merely amount to post-modern anachronisms. He points to specific passages that if you didn’t know were from an epic fantasy book, they’d look like they could fit inside any modern novel.

Roberts contends that Tolkien is able to write more convincing epic fantasy because of his grasp of language and from coming from a different time. While I agree that Tolkien’s experience as a professor and philologist gave him a linguistic edge, I don’t agree with the implication that a modern writer can’t write authentic sounding epic fantasy.

I have my own issues with Rothfuss’ novel–mostly dealing with how Kvothe is able to overcome almost any obstacle and excel at everything. (Roberts does raise a fantastic point about the framing devices used in The Name of the Wind, especially those that pertain to the art of storytelling and how Rothfuss tries to deflect criticism by using some meta jabs at detractors). However, I don’t have an issue with Rothfuss’ use of language and writing style.

How many times have you read an amateur story that attempts to tell an epic fantasy tale only to be turned off by the use of language? People seem to think that using “thou” and “thee” will make their tale more authentic and “old sounding.” Most of the time it doesn’t work. Robert’s doesn’t explicitly state that inverted constructions and archaic vocabulary make or break epic fantasy, but I can’t help but get that impression.

Tolkien was uniquely suited to crafting prose that sounds like heroic verse because of his background and experience. Not every writer has to do that to create epic fantasy. Not every writer should do that. I took a class dedicated to Chaucer, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to try to write in a Middle English-inspired tone, even if I’m writing epic fantasy. It’d come across as stilted, like I was trying too hard. There’s much more to it than just the sound; there are characters, settings, and thematic issues that also shape and guide the genre.

I agree with both Roberts and Smith that there are cultural differences that permeate down to the metacognitive level between our time, Tolkien’s time, and “medieval” times (wherever the setting happens to be based).  But to me, things like where we draw the inspiration for our epic fantasy stories–either from individual achievement or personal defiance against a predetermined doom–are far more important than writing old fashioned and fancy.

What do you think? Am I missing the point here? Is sound/syntax just as important as setting, theme, and characters when it comes to epic fantasy? I want to know what other writers and readers of fantasy think.

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