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The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
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really liked it

Epic Fantasy, following Tolkien’s lead, has had a tendency to draw clear lines between good and evil. It would be unfair to say that the works of Tolkien, Jordan, Hobb, etc. lack complexity, but even those pillars of the genre tell essentially the same tale: Goodness reigns and keeps Evil at bay, Evil sneaks in and tries to corrupt and destroy Goodness, Goodness fights back and prevails. Even GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire, infamously grey-shaded as it is, propagates this narrative while pretending to subvert it; the severed head of poor Ned Stark – that tragic torchbearer of compassionate conservatism – glares down from its pike, passing judgment on all the proceedings that follow. Regardless of where the tale digresses from that point, Martin never lets you forget it.
It’s a comforting narrative, appealing in its simplicity, and it is largely responsible for the enduring success of the genre. It is not exclusive to fiction, however. In the real world, it is used by politicians, cultural leaders, the media, et all to win elections, to wage wars. We are the good, they are the evil, vote for me, stop the evildoers, and so on and so forth.
What distinguishes Kameron Hurley’s Raisa – the world she builds in the Mirror Empire – is the author’s ear for the complexities of cultural conflict and the ways in which nations use these conflicts to shape their values and interpret their histories. To some degree or another, the traditional fantasy narrative described above is one of several competing narratives at play among the Raisa's various cultures, but in practice it usually does more harm than good. It leads, at the very least, to mistrust among individuals, and at most to war, oppression, slavery, hatred, genocide.
It is fitting, then, that the “great evil” that infiltrates Raisa and forms the basis of the novel’s main conflict is not some dark and monstrous orc-like race, but mirror versions of one of its cultures, the (currently, but not necessarily historically) pacifistic Dhai. These mirror Dhai made different choices in their version of the world, and are now looking to colonize this other one. Like every nation of people, the Dhai in “our” version of the world have built a complex set of moral and ethical codes to justify their history and their present circumstances, but in forcing them to confront basically identical versions of themselves who have encoded a different set of justifications from a similar history, Hurley crumples up the tired old narrative of cultural superiority, tosses it over her shoulder, and gives it a Chaplin-like backward kick into the waste bin.
I don’t want to give the impression that The Mirror Empire is more sociology textbook than fantasy adventure; that is most definitely not the case. The novel is packed with action and drama from start to finish. Raisa is as grim and violent a place as Westeros, and considerably more imaginative a setting than the usual Medieval-Europe-with-gods-and-magic that dominates the genre. The semi-sentient plant life is particularly intriguing (and terrifying), as is the waxing and waning of its astrophysical-based magic system.
The Mirror Empire is not a perfect book by any means; Hurley’s dense plotting occasionally leans on too-convenient coincidences to get out of a jam, and while I insist it doesn’t read like an academic lecture, there are a few rare and brief instances where it almost starts to feel like one.
But if you’re a fan of fantasy fiction that expands your palette while delivering gut-punching thrills, I highly recommend this novel.
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Reading Progress

October 19, 2014 – Started Reading
October 19, 2014 – Shelved
October 19, 2014 –
page 361
November 6, 2014 –
page 441
November 8, 2014 –
page 500
November 8, 2014 –
page 539
November 8, 2014 – Finished Reading

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