Dec 16, 2014

[Books] The Mirror Empire (The Worldbreaker Saga Book 1)

The worlds of fantasy and science fiction are often a great venue for exploring various contemporary issues. Exotic settings and strange creatures are often used as metaphors for various problems and situations that we face today. And thus it becomes rather interesting to find authors exploring different ideas using such stories as a medium.

The Mirror Empire is the first book in the new Worldbreaker saga and surprisingly enough has more than just an exotic adventure involving magic and parallel dimensions. Part of the world-building of this particular story is a drastically different take on gender roles and quite a number of dominant female characters driving the story forward.

In this case, it's hard to tell if the gender switch around was meant to be some complex metaphor or merely a quick effort to change things up. As much as we see interesting new perspective on gender here, we also see a lot of lazier writing and questionable moments that end up distracting from the main narrative. And this felt like quite a shame given the strong potential for this story.

Synopsis: The Mirror Empire is the first book in Kareon Hurley's Worldbreaker Saga. It was published by Angry Robot Books and I received a free review copy of this title in exchange for my honest option of the work.

The novel starts out with a dramatic enough beginning - a flashback about small village under siege and a woman desperate to keep her child safe. She eventually managed a blood magic ritual to open up a portal to another world and promptly sends her young daughter through the breach. And now in the relative present, we find the young girl Lilia is working as a servant but determined to one day find her homeland and fulfill a promise she made to her mother. We're introduced to a variety of spellcasters who derive their powers from satellites around the planet. With the waxing and waning of each moon, so too does their power shift.

But more importantly, the story slowly describes an invasion from another world - the very same world where young Lilia came from. But their ultimately objective is not clear as their allied forces move through entire villages, slaughtering every last person. We have the death of the Kai, a sort of religious leader, and the rise of an unlikely replacement to follow in her footsteps. We have alliances crumbling due to the machinations of some greater plot. And thus the Worldbreaker Saga begins.

The book has all the trappings of a great fantasy epic. Hurley has some pretty ambitious world-building here and a large cast of characters that we try to follow around to the best of our ability. Hurley is unwilling to hold the reader's hand in this process, and this becomes both a good and a bad thing. She has a language of her own at work in this book and you're more than likely to spend the first few chapters wondering what this term and that term means and confused over the naming conventions.

A lot of writers want to make their stories feel drastically different - perhaps alien is a better word to capture the feeling. And Hurley certainly achieves that with her complex magic system, her strange names and her alternative matriarchy. But at the same time there's making things different in a creative manner and just being frustrating. Sadly, I felt this book tipped over towards the latter and it was hard to keep up with who said what and which race was fighting which one given the strange names.

Moreso, Hurley also introduces a very complex gender structure. We start by thinking there's simply a matriarchy in place, but we also have races with 3-5 gender forms of pronouns (we never actually see the words, but they are described to be in the different forms), individuals who shift biological genders on a regular basis and some very strange gender role reversals. At first it felt exciting and new and the potential for complex gender narratives were in every new page of the book. But then Hurley seems to fall into the trap of making strong female characters who end up just acting like their male counterparts. Even worse, we have these female authority figures falling into the same patterns of violence that we condemn in men including near-slavery of spouses and outright rape. I don't necessarily think this side of things was necessary in order to create a novel new world.

Thus the overall story gets a little lost to these confusing side elements of names, nations and gender roles, which is rather disappointing since I know that's not the point that she wanted to get across. And as much as I'd love to just try and focus on core story, the other structural concerns related to the story really did make reading this novel more difficult than it should have been. And the final ending was a bit of a whimper, but of course this is but the first book in a larger series, so I'm sure there's a lot more good stuff coming.

The Mirror Saga is a very ambitious new take on the fantasy genre with a bold story at its heart. I just hope that Hurley addresses some of the gender criticism related to this book in order to make the future novels not quite as offensive to read. Thus the book only really gets 2.5 satellite-powered magic users out of a possible 5.

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