It’s a regular habit of mine to find my foot in my mouth with the taste of a rubber sole leaving a grimace on my face. Let’s be clear; I never intend the wrong thing, and I try very hard to scrub my language of any offensive terms or terminology that I am unclear of, trying to correct any wrongdoing before it can occur. That said, no one is perfect, and often my ignorance leads me through a few dark tunnels before I find the light.
It became apparent to me that if I was going to expand the horizons of my fantasy repertoire to include subjects I am not intimately familiar with, I must actively do so by searching out new authors who are including these diverse elements in their writing. During this search is when I happened upon Kameron Hurley and the epic narrative that is her novel, The Mirror Empire.
The Mirror Empire is the first book of Hurley’s Worldbreaker saga, with Empire Ascendant following and a third book to come in 2016. She has won the Hugo Award twice, and been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke, Nebula, and Locus Awards. Her writing is grand in scale, ambition and style, smoothly blending a diverse array of characters whose tropes break through the fantasy barriers that other such sagas as The Wheel of Time and Lord of the Rings have fallen into. Kameron Hurley represents a new age of socially-conscious authors who are taking it upon themselves to remind people that the world—any world that we create—is full of a broad spectrum of deep and meaningful individuals.
Following the story of a young, disfigured, orphan named Lilia, Hurley takes the reader on a grand and fantastical journey through some of the elements of transgender identity, gender fluidity and gender role reversal. She includes lesbian and gay characters that are well thought out and well-constructed, where their identity exists beyond their sexuality. In fact, Hurley manages to treat the different sexual inclinations of her characters in such a way as to not draw undue attention to the subject while still allowing them to feel love and passion for one another. Socially constructed barriers crumble as women are placed in an authoritative and leading roles, choosing many husbands for themselves while men are often seen as little more than breeding machines and artisans.
When her home is attacked by strange invaders with glowing branches sprouting from their palms, all Lilia’s mother can do to save her daughter is shove Lilia through a portal to another world, one where she knows nothing and no one, and anything could get her killed. With a disfigured leg and a ward as a parting gift from her mother, Lilia is left to find her way through a civilization completely different from her own. Host to a cast that ranges from the gender-fluid Taigan to the entirety of the Dorinan culture and its use of a new, genderless pronoun “zhe,” Kameron Hurley has built a world that erupts diversity from metaphorical volcanoes. She is leading the forefront of social culture in her determination to account for the genderless population of her readers and a feminine-powered matriarchal society lays the groundwork for a society that supports polyandrous marriages.
Lilia becomes fast friends with a Parajista named Roh, one of the magicians who can draw on one of the four satellites that orbit the planet and use their power to perform magic. When Roh is stabbed and left for dead, a Sanisi, one of the feared members of the powerful and ruling Saiduan magicians, arrives and uses the power of Oma, a moon that hadn’t been seen in the sky in 1000 years, confirming fears that had been bubbling up in the Dhai seers. Ahkio, brother of the ruling Kai, desires nothing more than to become another of his lover’s, Meyna, husbands. When his sister dies suddenly he is pulled away to rule a nation that doesn’t desire him, but needs his leadership all the same.
In exchange for saving Roh’s life, Taigan, a Sanisi, demands Lilia’s accompaniment. The two travel through a world where vegetation is more dangerous than the animals it eats and people ride around on bears with bifurcated paws and forked tongues. Magic is reliant on fickle moons whose orbits change yearly, creating an ever-shifting tide of power. Planets are colliding, and it is up to Lilia to find a way to reach her mother and stop the destruction of everything she knows.
Hurley has crafted a world with so much intention on breaking the typical fantasy tropes that have come before her that one might expect the pages to read heavy and feel weighted down with the powerful topics she challenges, but this is not the case. Her characters feel real; they don’t feel devised or planned. Their decisions and their pains and their loves and their desires all feel genuine. They are genuine. They represent real people that exist in a real world. Our world. Brava.
For more by Kameron Hurley, check out the sequel to The Mirror Empire, Empire Ascendant, available in your local bookstore now!
By: J. Zeiders