Guest Review: The Mirror Empire

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By: Sally from Bending the Bookshelf

Reasons for Inclusion: Matriarchal society where gender roles are reversed; multiple non-binary genders; gender fluidity; polyamorous bisexual relationships are standard

Review: (5/5 stars)

The Mirror Empire is that rarest of fantasy beasties – a successful mainstream epic fantasy that is also boldly, brashly, and brazenly diverse.

It all begins with a harsh, post-apocalyptic fantasy universe that is fully aware of its own mirror worlds. These are not just mirror worlds into which individuals accidentally slip, but worlds that wage war upon one another to survive the latest apocalyptic cycle. What is really interesting here is that everyone has a mirror counterpart, with whom they cannot coexist, leading to a sometimes confusing game of murder and usurpation. Most of the conflict centres upon a pacifist empire known as the Dhai, which just happens to be situated on the marching path of mirror conquerors.

As for that post-apocalyptic fantasy landscape, there is a strong theme of environmental awareness buried within it. Kameron Hurley avoids any long-winded speeches about the madness of foolishness of humanity, and does not bore the reader with details about we destroyed the world. Instead, she moves past all that, simply acknowledges that it happened, and shows us just how resilient –and vengeful – nature can be. This is a hostile environment with which humanity is constantly at war, fighting back carnivorous vegetation, including ‘bone trees’ that incorporate human bone shards into their bark.

In terms of gender, gender roles, and sexuality, this is certainly the most diverse epic fantasy I have ever encountered. Gender is as much about roles as it is biology, with both passive and assertive males and females, as well as truly gender fluid individuals. I found myself confused by the diversity of pronouns at times, so I can only imagine how a mainstream reader might feel. Despites those gender differences, this is largely a world of matriarchal societies, where masculine rulers are almost unheard of, and the very idea of a male warrior is laughed at. It is the women who make the decisions, who fight the battles, and who enjoy the spoils. Assertive men generally serve as clerics and scribes, while passive men serve as the equivalent of the stereotypical housewife, performing domestic chores and providing sexual release for their polyamorous marriage partners.

Despite the diversity and the imagination involved here, this is a very dark and very violent epic fantasy. Kameron Hurley ploughs through her story about as quickly, almost dragging the reader along in her wake, so that we do not truly appreciate what she has accomplished until the very end. There are a lot of characters and a lot of points-of-view, which only adds to the confusion, but it does personalize much of the diversity and really allow us to experience the world of the Worldbreaker Saga.

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