THE MIRROR EMPIRE (WORLDBREAKER SAGA #1) by KAMERON HURLEY

the mirror empire
My rating is 2 out of five stars.

One of the difficult things about reviewing books for me personally is having to write a less than favorable opinion. Not that I can’t be just as negative as the next person, because obviously it’s not hard to close a novel and say to a friend “Don’t waste your time. That story sucked.” Nope, my problem is trying to isolate why I did not appreciate a novel, analyze if my issues are just that: my issues, or a real deficiency of the story, and then write an honest review.

For those of you who don’t write reviews, please understand that it is difficult to be both honest and also objective. Mainly, because – if you love books – you want to adore every one of them that you read (if for no other reason than you’ve invested your precious time trying them), and, when that doesn’t happen, your initial reaction as a human is to say “I hate it” and leave it at that. But a reviewer can’t do that. It just isn’t fair to anyone interested in reading the book. So, as I sit here wanting to say “The Mirror Empire isn’t that good. Don’t read it”, I know I have to attempt to explain why I feel that way.

First, I want to establish up-front that I was excited to read The Mirror Empire. When I initially saw the kick-ass cover and read the novel description, it looked tailored made for my tastes: multi-viewpoint narrative, huge world, cross-world warfare, and gender-bender characters. When you factor in Kameron Hurley’s recent Hugo award, you might understand how an epic fantasy lover like me would be breathlessly waiting to fall in love with the Worldbreaker saga. And to be fair, this novel absolutely delivers on several of its promises.

That spectacular new world, it is here. In fact, there are two rather than one for a reader to sink their fantasy teeth into, filled with numerous countries, races, deep history, ongoing wars, and sentient plant-life that range from those symbiotic to womankind to those completely predatory.

Naturally, these worlds are teeming with magic: a very well-thought-out system of magic whereby it is controlled by a person’s innate ability and her attunement to one of several moons that orbit the planet. As certain moons ascend and descend in the heavens, a mage’s power waxes and wanes as does her magical sect’s worldly power and influence.

As for the warrior-women promised by the book description, they appear one after another: complex and powerful females who take their turn in the spotlight, empowered both physically and emotionally as unquestioned masters of all that they survey. No, ma’am, these ladies do not concern themselves with exerting their equality to their male counterparts, because they are superior in every way: a natural state of affairs that is beyond doubt.

But as I slowly devoured and digested all these essential and delectable fantasy morsels, I began to have a little bit of heartburn. (Please pardon the pun, but I couldn’t help myself.) I didn’t know exactly why – though there were a few things nagging at me as I read.

First, the complete lack of any strong male characters did bother me. The fact that male characters were taught that they were “unnatural” didn’t sit well with me. Kai Ahkio (the most prominent male character in the novel) being constantly berated for being male and told that he is a poor substitute for a strong female leader was annoying. And yes, the book did read at times like a mirror version of a Robert E. Howard sword and sorcery tale, complete with childlike men waiting for their rescue by muscle-bound females ready to rip their clothes off and mount up on their throbbing manhood. But, I’d known going in that The Mirror Empire was a female dominated story, so, even though the lack of strong men was an issue, it was not enough to trump the good parts of the story.

Then something else reared its ugly head: rape – except this time, women were raping men.

Now, I’m not a prude; I realize rape happens. In fact, as an attorney, I’ve defended more rapists than I can count on both hands. But, I’m also not a big proponent of rape as a narrative device in literature. It seems so overused as a shock effect that I don’t enjoy it. Even in Mark Lawrence’s grimdark masterpiece Prince of Thorns, I was a bit bothered by Jorg Ancrath’s casual raping of girls at the beginning of the book, because it didn’t seem necessary or relevant to the story. (Jorg doesn’t go on to become a serial rapist but a serial murderer.) Hell, I even agreed with people who very emotionally argued that no one should view Jorg as a hero after he casually went around raping girls. So how could I uphold a female author allowing one of her “female heroes” to rape and brutalize men?

Perhaps I should introduce our heroic rapist first before I answer that question.

Let us welcome Zezili Hasario, Captain General of the Empress of Dorinah, who shows casual indifference to cruelty, a perverted sense of love, and a total acceptance of mass murder – even as she goes about trying to save the world. Where Jorg raped two young girls, Zezili purchased herself a beautiful man, spent her leisure time sexually torturing him, and justified it by saying, “He [is] the one thing in [my] life [I] controlled completely. And [I] loved him for it.” Indeed, after their wedding, Zezili’s husband Anavha says, “[Zezili] made [me] strip in her bedroom . . . cuffed [me] across the mouth, drawing blood . . . told [me] to kneel . . . took [my] chin in her hand and said, ‘You’re mine. All of you. Every bit of you. You’ll service my sisters, because it’s proscribed’ . . . [then] cut her initials into [my] flesh . . . licked at the blood of [my] wound . . . reached for [me], and found [me] . . . erect [then said] ‘Well . . . they paired me well.’ ” And then Anahva goes on to describes his continued life with our hero Zezili as follows:

“Zezili was a brutal mistress; demanding, violent. She entertained herself with [me] until [my] vision was hazy, pain and desire twisting [my] insides, turning [my] voice to a high-pitched wail, begging for release. Yet when she finished with [me], [I] felt somehow obscene, disassembled. . . [I] sat awake at night and cut [myself] while she was away . . . wondering if Zezili would mourn if [I] died, or simply have [me] replaced, as she would her dog . . .”

Yeah, Zezili’s behavior sounds at least equal to Jorg Ancrath’s psychopathic rape of two girls. Actually, there is even more about Zezili and her husband, but I think the above illustrates the nature of their relationship. Just so you know, later Anavha also gets raped by another woman-warrior, but it wasn’t Zezili, so I didn’t see the need to quote that section of the story.

So, after reading all that, did the accepted brutalization of men, their sexual torture, and casual rape at the hands of women bother me?

Well, I’m sorry to admit that I once again talked myself out of holding the brutalization against this book. “Stop having such a closed mind,” I told myself. “Okay, men are sex toys. There is probably lots of fantasy out there that still portray women that way.” Hell, I even used this one. “Ms. Hurley has put a little bit of Fifty Shades of Grey in a fantasy and Zezili is Christian Grey, so what? It is her pushing the boundaries of the genre; nothing wrong with that.”

But even as I convinced myself to put aside the lack of male characters and the brutalization of men, I was slapped in the face by something else: ritualistic cannibalism.

Yeah, these fantasy people cannibalize each others. Okay. Certain Native Americans did it before the arrival of the Europeans, I know. I’ll just put that “shocking” fact on the list with the others. I’m sure human hearts taste like chicken anyway.

Next on the “shock” list, we have (Drumroll please) no heterosexual characters.

Okay. It seemed a little odd that no one – even just one person – might be heterosexual and not bisexual. But that was fine, I accepted it and moved on.

Bit by bit, it also became apparent that everyone in this world practiced polygamy. Okay, Old Testament of the Bible reversed with the women marrying multiple males and females.

Then we have a male character Roh being taken as a sexual slave to an adult near the end of the book.

Anyone else beginning to see a pattern here?

Ms. Hurley appeared to be pulling out all the stops to “shock” her readers. Now why would an author do that?

Perhaps it is because the story itself is deficient?

Unfortunately, that was the case, in my opinion. Let me explain .

First, none of the main characters in this epic were very compelling. In fact, they were almost instantly forgettable. Zezili? I’m not big on rapist and mass murderers, but even setting that aside, the general was fairly boring, doing little except killing defenseless people in prison camps. Ahkio? Everyone around him thinks him a weak, whiny man, and even though he tries, he spends a great deal of time pining away over men and women, his horrible fate, and generally being exactly what all his enemies accusing him of being: a weak, whiny man manipulated by his female handlers. Roh? According to the women in the book, he is an idiotic boy, not much else you can add. Lilia? I actually liked her, thought her story was compelling but lost interest in it by the end due to the constant back and forth nature of her travels. Naturally, there are other characters, but these are the ones I actually remember.

Second, the concept of mirror worlds and their convergence had some glaring inconsistences in its explanation and application that kept cropping up in the story. Things that I would read and go “Wait, that can’t be the case because of the explanation two chapters ago.” After a while, I stopped caring whether the cross-world action made sense anymore.

Third, the multi-viewpoint narrative. Almost all epic fantasy series seem to have this type of setup these days, and it definitely can work. However, the writer must make the individual tales relevant to the narrative as a whole but keep them different enough that each one is compelling on its own and filled with new situations. In The Mirror Empire, it seemed that the numerous stories got away from Ms. Hurley; they began to spread out into a mass of tangled threads that I personally needed a flowchart to keep up with, but they also began to get so repetitive that they blurred together until I found it hard to recall whose story I was actually reading at a given time.

Needless to say, I did not love The Mirror Empire. With its mirror world concept, the book had a wonderful foundation upon which to build a riveting, fantasy epic. However, just like a solid foundation does not assure a beautiful house, Ms. Hurley’s spectacular, fantasy ideas did not guarantee an engrossing story, and perhaps she realized this, which is why she began to rely so heavily on “shocking” elements. However, all the reversal of sexual roles, rape, sexual torture, ritualistic cannibalism, mass murder, and teenage sex slaves in two universe can’t conceal when a story is convoluted and dull at the same time.

I received this book from Netgalley and the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank both of them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.

PURCHASE THE NOVEL AT AMAZON

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This entry was posted in 2 Stars, Epic, Fantasy, Grimdark, High and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to THE MIRROR EMPIRE (WORLDBREAKER SAGA #1) by KAMERON HURLEY

  1. stephswint says:

    Interesting. I have not read this yet, and was very curious. I’m not a fan of sexual violence regardless of gender. I will have to think about whether I really want to pick this up. Thank you for your different perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your different perspective. I thought the book was all right, but finished it feeling strangely dissatisfied. My biggest problem with it was the failure of any of the characters to resonate with me. When I don’t care about the characters, it’s hard for me to care about anything do, or anything that happens to them. You bring up a lot of good points though. I don’t have any “specifics” when it comes to why I didn’t get into this book, but perhaps in broader and more general terms, I thought there was too much “for the sake of…” going on here. Shock for the sake of shock, epic for the sake of epic, etc., the more a story does this, the more I find myself losing interest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bookwraiths says:

      It seems we felt much the same about this one. You probably put it best with the “for the sake of . . .” point. The characters here really did feel like after thoughts to the epic world and its shocking society. Somewhat of a backward way to write a story in my opinion, since without compelling people none of those other things matter in the least.

      Like

      • I’d suggest that you ask Hurley about her intent instead of telling people over and over in your comments and review what her intent was.

        I didn’t find anything even vaguely shocking in this book. Hell, it is certainly a lot less shocking than the content of Game of Thrones.

        Ritualistic cannibalism of the dead? You know that they do that in Papua New Guinea, right?

        The Saiduan Empire is ruled by a male Patron and when he is overturned, his children and wives are all killed, every time it happens.

        Heck, by the end of the book, the male lead you’re looking for is Taigan because he’s a man at that point. Our rapist general, Zezili, is never portrayed as the hero of the book though her motivations (and messed up personality) are made clear. As another commentator points out, she engages in mass killing of innocents and is pretty ho hum about it besides how it will affect herself and the nation she lives in. Not the hero.

        We have two heroes: the Kai and Lilia and, really, the latter has quite a bit of blood on her hands (though you could say the same in any fantasy novel).

        I’m not sure what you really found so shocking about this novel. Gender queer characters? Group marriages? Non-hatred of queer folks by normal people?

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      • Bookwraiths says:

        Hi Al, thanks for your comment. 🙂

        Maybe I didn’t articulate my feelings about this book well, but what I was try to convey is that the actual story in The Mirror Empire was not that compelling nor were the characters very intriguing to ME. Whether they were homosexual, heterosexual, metrosexual, bisexual, practiced monogamy or polygamy, they just were not that interesting to read about. Rather, Ms. Hurley spent so much time trying to craft a non-traditional society that she failed to turn the people populating the place into living, breathing women and men whose struggles and triumphs entertained and enraptured me. Hopefully, in the next volume of the series, she will focus the spotlight more on the people and less on the societal (or what I labeled shocking) elements of the tale.

        With all that being said, I’m happy you liked this novel, Al. If you’d like to try one of my favorite standalone novels (which actually has many homosexual characters) give Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner a try. I rated it my fourteenth favorite standalone fantasy novel.

        Good luck with your further reads!

        Like

  3. Rabindranauth says:

    Well said. There’s been constant outcrying by feminists about the way rape is handled as pertaining to females; I guess it’s only expected someone would have an issue with it when men are being raped.

    Thing is, I enjoyed the subversion MAINLY because I knew it was a subversion Kameron Hurley was attempting. There are characters, like Taigan, that made me wonder how much of this she has planned, and how much of it is just her making a statement, but overall it just worked for me.

    Definitely agree on the characters, the only one that I was interested in is Zezili. Overall, I enjoyed this, but you raise some excellent points, no denying that!

    Like

    • Bookwraiths says:

      Thanks for reading the review, Rab. 🙂

      Like I mentioned, in my review, the “subversive” elements I viewed as shock for the sake of shock. None of them seemed to make any difference in the plot as a whole as far as I could see. But then again, the story wasn’t terribly interesting to me, so perhaps I overlooked the impact of the sexual torture, rape, et cetera on the overall narrative.

      As for whether the author was adding all these “shocking” elements as a subversion or political statement, who knows except for her? I personally don’t really enjoy novels that try to be a social commentary first and an engaging story second. It is boring. Many novels (like “The Forever War”that I read this week) have touched upon the transformation of societal norms in a way that was enlightening but also interesting. This novel not so much.

      Like I said though, I’m glad that you enjoyed the book, and I look forward to reading your review on the next novel in the series. Maybe, Ms. Hurley will find a good balance between interesting characters, dynamic plot, and social commentary by then.

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      • Rabindranauth says:

        No prob! And that’s true. I understand what you mean about the shock factor. The entire scene where Zezili’s husband is nearly raped by her cousin just felt like she plugged it into the book because the reverse happens in most male-written fantasies, so she stuck it in just because.

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  4. lynnsbooks says:

    Wow, such a different review to the others I’ve seen for this book. To be honest I was going to give this one a miss but I was starting to buckle under the weight of all the other glowing reviews. I just have too many series on the go and need to focus a bit more. It’s a shame you had so many issues with this but I think you make really sound arguments and I totally respect what you’re saying about writing a negative review. It’s not something I really enjoy and also I very rarely have to do so because I don’t complete the book if I’m not enjoying it – and in that case I don’t review because I think it’s a little bit unfair.
    Good review.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bob Milne says:

    Hmm, interesting take on things. I can completely see where you’re coming from, and I suspect a lot of readers will have similar reactions, but I think I was more intrigued than shocked by any of the aspects you describe. As horrible a crime as rape is, I think we’ve become so desensitized to it in this age of Law & Order / CSI / Criminal minds that it just doesn’t have the same impact that it once did when I first read Thomas Covenant. The bisexuality and polygamy weren’t an issue for me, especially since they seems such a part-and-parcel of the gender reversal, and I’ve always thought of our approach to relationships more a religious/social construct than something natural and biological. I will admit the cannibalism did give me pause, however, even if I can understand how it might be part of life in such a hostile environment.

    Far from perfect, but I appreciated the imagination and the audacity of it. I just hope she can put more focus on character and plot in the sequel, now that the groundwork has been laid.

    Like

    • Bookwraiths says:

      First, thank you so much for reading my review and for your thoughts. 🙂

      I totally understand why most people will applaud Ms. Hurley for her audacity and great imagination in crafting a fantasy world in this mold. It not only breaks the traditional rules but turns them on their head. Which is fine IF it wasn’t so blatantly obvious that the whole story was about the SHOCKING social elements. As you yourself said, maybe next time the author will actually put some focus on characters and plot, because this time there wasn’t very much of that at all.

      And, while I respect you immensely, I have to point out that rape in fantasy might not shock you or me, but as numerous active two and three years old threads on Goodreads and other places clearly show, many people do find it shocking and frown upon a character being penned as a hero after casually raping or sexually torturing people.

      Now, since you did not disagree with my assertion that Zezili is written as a rapist and hero, I assume we agree that this is sot. And to clarify my point (I wasn’t clear I think), my argument was how can people ethically point their finger in condemnation of Jorg Ancrath or other male-written characters glorifying rape but not condemn a female writer for doing the exact same thing? Honestly, every person who railed at Mark Lawrence for Jorg should light up their pitchforcks and start on Ms. Hurley. That was my point, and why I felt that I should have held the sexual torture and casual rape against the novel more than I did, because as a person who deals with rapist/molesters and rape/molestation victims all the time these sorts of sexual crimes are anything but trivial.

      As for the bisexuality, polygamy, and gender roles, I have no problem with them being in any book. Humanity has always exhibited different sexual orientations and always will. What I was attempting to point out is that there is always diversity in a society. (It is what we try to strive so diligently for in modern American.) So — once again — I was pointing out that the fact that NO ONE was heterosexual, monogamous or a strong man didn’t ring true. Rather it made the whole story seem like a social commentary rather than a story about a real society.

      I’m glad other people are loving this book. All authors with as much talent and vision as Ms. Hurley deserve to have people read and love their work, and I desperately wanted to love it myself. But it didn’t work for me, and like many other novels I’ve reviewed that had a lot to do with the lack of a compelling story and a lot of shock element and social commentary. Those things are just not what I look for in an epic fantasy.

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      • Rabindranauth says:

        There not being a strong man did bug me at first, for the very same reason you highlighted. The Mirror Empire walks a very thin line of natural worldbuilding and feminist super-rant, and that’s one case where it nearly tipped over for me. However, there’s one strong man, at the end of the story, I couldn’t really help but see as anything but, and it’s the Kai.

        He may not be a sword wielding dipstick, but he was forced into a job that he didn’t want, and in certain situations, like when he exiled that clan regardless of personal consequences, shows he has some mettle in his backbone. And then, nearly towards the very end of the book, there were some male soldiers, whose allegiance was unclear. Those two examples are the main reason I was able to consider it all natural. The soldiers themselves felt like an afterthought, to be honest, but the Kai is undeniable, for me.

        Sorry, couldn’t help sticking that in >_>

        By the way, the polygamy and bisexuality I took in stride for much the same reasons Bob pointed out; it’s nature, but just an inherent nature suppressed by socio-religious pressures.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire Review Round-Up | Chaos Horizon

  7. Cat says:

    Hmm. I found the world-building, the cultures, the magic system, very compelling and interesting but had trouble keeping track of the cast, and found a serious shortage of people to root for. I liked the Kai, and I liked Lilia (and after what happened to that child when Lilia went through the gate, am not so sure about her.) And Gian (and I’m very puzzled about why there seem to have been two of her on one world long-term; I thought that wasn’t possible.) And that’s about it.

    Zezili I just plain didn’t see as a hero at all. I thought of her as one of the bad guys, because of her behavior toward her husband and because of the slaughter she was helping carry out. She was a bad guy with understandable motivations, whose character was well fleshed out, and interesting for that reason..

    But yeah, I think you have put your finger on what I didn’t like about the book.

    Like

    • Tomcat says:

      YES! The Gian thing confused me too. There are *definitely* two Gians in the same world, which breaks the rules of the universe that’s been created. I’m amazed that editors didn’t pick up on this

      Like

  8. Tammy Sparks says:

    I agree, I was very disappointed in this book, and had similar reactions to it. I hadn’t thought about all the “shock value” elements, but you’re right. It was almost as if she were trying to throw every possible subversion into her story. I was mostly just confused by all the back and forth, and honestly lost interest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bookwraiths says:

      I’m sorry you had a similar experience with this novel. It had all the makings of a grand fantasy, but the characters and story got lost somewhere along the way. Hopefully, the author will straighten things out in the next installment.

      Like

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