Bear cavalry with forked tongues. Cultures with three genders or five. Hostile, mobile plants. Parallel universes. Magic drawn from satellites that orbit at irregular periods. As far as I remember, Kameron Hurley's new novel The Mirror Empire doesn't include a kitchen sink, but pretty much everything else is there. Those unfamiliar with Kameron Hurley should go read the Hugo-award winning We Have Always Fought. (Those interested in how to do an online book-marketing campaign should check out this blog tour, btw). I'm still digesting The Mirror Empire, but there's an element that jumped out immediately: Kameron is clearly throwing down the gauntlet to authors and readers, challenging us to broaden our horizons and expectations for epic fantasy.
Let's start with the non-peopled setting of The Mirror Empire. Carnivorous plants that can walk around make it dangerous to live outside of guarded settlements. People ride dogs and giant bears with forked tongues. A plant-monorail system. There are at least three moons that orbit irregularly, which give different powers. Also, there are other very very similar universes, and it's possible to travel between them. Basically, the world of The Mirror Empire is fantastic in the truest sense of the word. I've certainly never read a fantasy series (with the possible exception of Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, which gets a lot more of it's fantasy from the cosmology & not the world) that really embraces the limitless potential of getting to tell your story in a truly invented world. Authors - the gauntlet has been thrown down. Your imagination is the limit. (Readers too: if these elements alone don't challenge your expectations for "fantasy", something's wrong). There are a lot of ways that Hurley's novel just begs to be made a movie because of the fantastic setting.
The people and cultures of The Mirror Empire are equally mind-bending. One is a highly militarized matriarchal society. Another is based around consent - even before sympathetically reaching out to comfort someone, you ask. That culture also has five genders and performs ritual cannibalism. There's another culture with three genders and yet another government structure. Each of the societies is well-thought out and nuanced, internally and in their interactions with each other. And with each culture, there are scenes that allow Hurley to deliberately challenge her readers; there's a refrain among many bloggers and critics that there's a sameness developing in pseudo-medieval fantasy, and Hurley absolutely breaks that mold in ways that I certainly found challenging and exhilarating.
There's a scene early on where a general in the matriarchal society comes home to her husband, a kept man she remains married to primarily for his sex appeal. What I didn't realize until I saw a few people reacting to the scene on twitter was that even though the general has already been introduced as a strong and dynamic character, I read the scene with the husband at the center. Which is tough as she casually and ruthlessly dominates him. The Mirror Empire is full of scenes that deliberately challenge established reader expectations, sometimes by directly gender-flipping them and other times in more subtle ways.
And here's where my difficulty with The Mirror Empire comes in. The world is so complex and fantastic, and Hurley drops you straight into the deep end, that for the first third of the book I felt like I was just along for the ride, enjoying the parade of wonders and hoping that enough would stick for the plot and characters to begin to take shape, which they did. But even after I stopped feeling like I was treading water, Hurley kept throwing up scenes and storylines that were like looking at traditional fantasy through a funhouse mirror, then shattering the mirror. Which is tough because so much of my expectation for fantasy is that I'll just be immersed in the world and the story, but The Mirror Empire kept pushing me around and knocking me out of the story. Sometimes this is clearly an intentional attempt to challenge me to stretch my imagination to fit in an even more fantastic world. Sometimes it was clunky writing, a character thrust to the fore of a diplomatic mission because he's a protagonist, or the climax of a character arc that just felt rushed and emotionally flat. There are weaknesses in The Mirror Empire, but it's such an intentional, ambitious, and challenging novel that I'm not sure how many of those weaknesses are just related to my inability to let go of my own preconceptions. "I don't understand" is an empowering phrase. I repeated that a lot while reading The Mirror Empire.
There's a lot going on in The Mirror Empire. It generated a lot of buzz in at least my small corner of the twitterverse, and it's a stunning and ambitious book. I didn't love it, and I wouldn't recommend it unreservedly. Fans of fantasy who've been drifting away because it's feeling stale or cliched might well find The Mirror Empire to be a gateway back to the genre (and would be rewarded for doing so!). Enthusiastic readers and other writers should also definitely read and consider what Hurley's doing because The Mirror Empire is very actively in dialog with the surrounding genre. In some sense she's throwing down the gauntlet for both authors and readers to reconsider the fantastic in fantasy. I expect that readers will find their expectations constantly challenged, and authors may find themselves inspired to stretch further in the worlds they create. I certainly hope that the ripples of The Mirror Empire will still be visible years from now. And I'll be reading it again and again. I'm just not sure how much I'll be immersed in the story or how much I'll be poking at the scenery, and being bitten.