by KATIE STOCKDALE
The world of Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire offers one of fantasy’s purest joys: a new world that fans can become completely absorbed in. Hurley’s world is complex, set in its own universe that borders on sci-fi with the inclusion of different suns, that rise in the sky for over a decade, and grant those who can channel their power gifts of magic.
What might be difficult about the story is how Hurley starts it, by simply dropping the reader into the action with little explanation of the world and the magic system. This is a common struggle for fantasy writers; too much exposition in the beginning does not encourage further reading, and in Hurley’s case, plot also dictates vagueness. But the beginning is confusing, and difficult. I bought the book on a whim because I liked the back-jacket blurb, but once I started it I had trouble getting through it, to the point that I abandoned it for a few months before getting back into it. The second time I read it, I had just finished a series and had a real drive to continue reading something, and so I powered through the confusion of the first few chapters.
After that it gets fun. The story is immensely interesting, and told from several viewpoints, each representing a different culture of Wester Raisa, the world Hurley created. With the hints Hurley drops as the book progresses, the reader can puzzle out what is happening in the world and how its magic works, a process that I find engaging.
Within the story are elements of culture that begin to resonate outside the realm of fantasy. Gender, gender perception and gender roles are the motifs of this story. Each culture views gender very specifically and often radically differently from the others, creating very deep culture clashes. In Dhai, there are five genders based on socio-cultural constructs: female-assertive, female-passive, male-assertive, male-passive and ungendered. It is an insult to use the wrong pronoun in reference to a person, and this insult is one the Dhai’s take very seriously.
In Saiduan, there are three genders, based more specifically on sex: male, female, and atasia; the Saiduan word for people who are “not quite male and not quite female.” Though it’s never said outright, this would be the apparent gender for intersex people. Each gender has its own pronouns, and it is again highly insulting to reference someone with the wrong gender.
In Dorinah, the genders are simple male and female, but the gender roles are reversed. Dorinah takes a patriarchal society at its worst and flips it on its head. Men are only possessions for women to own, they are treated badly by their mothers, killed if they ever harm a woman, and are often sent to brothels as children and are then bought and married off. In a strange ceremony, after marriage, they are “shared” with their wife’s sisters, perhaps to show they are now the family’s property, though it seems to be the wife’s choice on how long this sharing arrangement lasts.
The interaction between genders and gender roles in Dhai and Saiduan are interesting as well, although more equal. In Dhai, no gender seems to be set above the any other, possibly because each person chooses the gender they identify with. Marriage, for instance, is often a group affair, and a woman or a man can be the head of this group. In Saiduan the genders seem to be completely equal, with men, women, and atasia serving as soldiers and elite bodyguards for their ruler. It would have been interesting to have seen Hurley push the gender boundaries more. In Dorinah the life of a married couple is shown through both points of view, which shows the husband feelings about his position. But in Dhai an ungendered person is never even met, much less given a point of view, and the special pronouns get lost in the books English he/she. It is difficult to tell how their genders differ from our own. In Saiduan, the point of view of an atasia is not offered.
Beyond social commentary, the book includes intense High Fantasy. The Dhai had once been a strong empire, but have long since fallen. They are persecuted by their neighbors the Dorinah, who are the power on their continent, and who take the Dhai as slaves. Across the sea to the north is the empire of Saiduan, even stronger than Dorniah, who also take the Dhai as slaves. But now, as the dark star Oma rises, forgiven invaders are invading Saiduan and taking city after city. Saiduan now needs the help of the Dhai, not just to save themselves but the whole world.
The story is told through the viewpoints of Lilia, the Dhai orphan, Roh, the Dhai scholar, Maralah, the head of Saiduan’s guard, Taigan a Saiduan omajista, Zezili, a rich Dorinah soldier and Anavha, Zezili’s young husband. Each of them carry with them the prejudices and limitations of their culture, but as they’re faced with an unwinnable war, each of them will grapple with the question of who they are, and what they will do to save their people.
Katie Stockdale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org