Time for Reflection: BBE Talks The Mirror Empire
The time has come for our second Books We Hate episode. This week, BBE is breaking down Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire. This contribution to the grimdark subgenre of fantasy was picked by Paige, who was originally drawn in by the cover work (see photo), with it’s dark and shadowy allure, as well as the summary on the back of the book, which seemed suitably action-packed and intriguing. However, the love affair ended for Paige nearly as soon as she began to read. Despite a promising start, the large cast of characters seemed insistent on making bad, selfish, or downright evil choices. After over five hundred pages, it didn’t seem like things were going to get better, but Paige nevertheless persevered and attempted the second installment in the Worldbreaker Saga: Empire Ascendant. Much to her disappointment, the characters were still even less likable than before, so she gave it up…and handed it over to Jennifer to read for the BBE podcast. But did Jennifer feel quite the same way about The Mirror Empire?
Kameron Hurley is a decorated science fiction and fantasy author. Hurley studied history at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa. Hurley’s historical background is evident in her writings, particularly her specialization in resistance movements. This background likely also contributed to Hurley’s work being classified as grimdark fantasy, generally reserved for books with the most brutal, dark, and violent themes. In an article with Mahvesh Murad for Tor.com, Hurley addresses this categorization of her novel, arguing that in fact she finds her work to be rather tame in comparison to the horrifying reality found in human history.
Echoing some of the sentiments in Murad’s article, BBE’s discussion of The Mirror Empire revealed that the complexity of the plot and the number of characters and cultures to keep track of, leaves the reader wanting. While some authors may be able to weave together story lines into tapestries, The Mirror Empire is significantly more disjointed. Hurley herself admitted that the book took tons of work to get into shape, even mentioning sobering structural edits from her editor, but over the course of our discussion, it became clear neither of us is convinced the book is the best it could be. Both Paige and Jennifer struggled to get acclimated to all the many elements Hurley included. In addition to having to learn a new magic system, new environments (with added bonus of carnivorous plants and tame bears), and an intricate plot with multiple POV characters, Hurley has also constructed three different social systems that incorporate numerous gender pronouns, polyamory, and even ritual cannibalism. It is A LOT to get a handle on. Jennifer also found certain parts of the text to be more problematic than others. For example, Hurley’s inversion of the traditional patriarchal model in the Dorinah Empire was undoubtedly meant to be thought-provoking in combination with the many other explorations of gender Hurley includes. However, Jennifer found it to be unimaginative in it’s straightforward imposition of male stereotypes onto females. In these particular portions it should also be noted there is sexual violence that may be triggering for the reader. With all these elements combined with short chapters and swiftly shifting POV’s, The Mirror Empire does not make for a coherent read.
Overall, while Jennifer didn’t hate The Mirror Empire like Paige did, but she wasn’t in love either, giving it three out of five stars. There was good along with the bad. Even though the plot is enormously complex, it is inventive in many ways, and has a truly interesting premise and other world building elements. Hurley’s explorations of gender and inverting social norms are also something to be commended even though Paige and Jennifer did not necessarily enjoy the outcome. Tune in to listen to all this and much more, and be sure to check out the links below, especially if you are interested in finding more examples of LGBTQ+ in the SFF genre!
Here’s a list of links you may find illuminating:
- Here’s the review on The Mirror Empire from Sword & Laser mentioned in the episode.
- Here’s another review with interview excerpts from Hurley from Tor.
- Check out Kameron Hurley’s personal website if you are interested in learning more about her works, including the recently released third installment in the Worldbreaker Saga, The Broken Heavens.
And check out this list if you want more examples of LGBTQ+ in the science fiction/fantasy genre:
- The Fifth Season, JK Jemisin
- The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula le Guin
- Fire Logic, Laurie J. Marks
- Priory of the Orange Tree, Samantha Shannon
- The Tiger’s Daughter, K. Arsenault Rivera
- Huntress, Malinda Lo
- Kushiel’s Dart, Jacqueline Carey
- The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie
- Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir
- The Rain Wilds Chronicles, Robin John
- Luck in the Shadows, Lynn Flwelling
- The Black Tides of Heaven, JY Yang
- This list is obviously extremely brief, there are some EXCELLENT lists on The Illustrated Page and Book Riot. The Illustrated Page list is even broken down into what areas of the spectrum you are interested in.
Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.5. Follow us on social media if that is your thing, and be sure to check out our Patreon for extra BBE content, including bonus episodes!