Book Review: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror EmpireThe Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 1 of Worldbreaker Saga

Publisher: Angry Robot (August 26, 2014)

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Needless to say, putting this review together was quite difficult for me, on account of how very different it is from the one I thought I would be writing. I made it no secret I had high hopes for this one, not only because of the buzz the book has gotten since the ramp up to its release or all the glowing reviews it has garnered, but also I was personally very excited to finally read my first Kameron Hurley novel. Truly, I wanted to love this book and was set and prepared to add my praise to the chorus, but as a reviewer I also have to be honest with others and with myself when a book does not meet expectations.

In the end, I think The Mirror Empire is one of those cases in which I can recognize its literary merits and applaud the author’s designs to challenge the conventions of epic fantasy fiction, but the story itself failed to connect with me on any deeper level and I found myself strangely dissatisfied when I completed it.

First, a bit about the book: The world is about to be shaken up by a cataclysm, and as the dark star rises to herald this event, you have an orphan girl named Lilia who would anything to fulfill a promise to her mother, even if it means putting herself in danger and having to face down unspeakable threats. In another place, a new Kai ascends to power after the suspicious death of his sister and fights to keep his place and his land together even as legitimacy of his rule is called into question. Meanwhile, a young boy said to be destined for great things undertakes a journey to discover himself and his loyalties, for one day he ultimately must choose between sides. And on the battlefield, an able but brutal general faces a similar predicament, caught between her heritage and her oaths to the Empress.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of perspectives involved, and many more characters besides. That should have been my first warning sign. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mind a big cast of characters (when you’re into epic fantasy, I think that sort of comes with the territory). However, that also means a greater onus on the author to strike a balance when it comes to giving every one of her players enough time to resonate with the reader, and to pace their sections accordingly. Hurley falters in this area by trying to introduce too many characters, both main and supporting, without sufficiently developing them – especially in the beginning. Not only do the odd-sounding names make it harder to remember who’s who, but ironically they also make it all the more obvious when new major to semi-major characters are still being introduced even past the halfway point of the novel. It makes it that much hard to sit back and just enjoy the story when so much effort is going towards trying to keep all the characters straight.

However, to be fair, you should know that I am a “Characters First” kind of reader. Arguably, I place an inordinate amount of emphasis on characters and how effectively I can engage with them. They absolutely don’t have to be admirable or even likeable, but I have to care. Characters are like the foundation of a story – everything else tumbles like a house of cards if I can’t care about them. Naturally, anything they do or anything that happens to them isn’t going to impact me in any meaningful way. The biggest issue I had with this book is the lack of any strong characters, in the sense that none of them were very memorable. Hurley doesn’t develop any of them nearly enough, and her pacing is haphazard and disorganized, so that many long chapters could go by before returning to a perspective character, and then I find myself asking, “Who are you again?” That shouldn’t be happening.

The only one – ONE out of a half dozen or so main characters and at least four times as many supporting characters – that I found myself interested in was Lilia, and that’s likely just because she was the first to be introduced in the prologue. Zezili, Captain General of the Empress, was a close second, and probably because Hurley went to great lengths to make her memorable but did so by taking the easy way, presenting the general as archetypically evil, the cruel mass murderer and an unfeeling lover. Everyone else faded into the background, which unfortunately made me feel very indifferent towards any events of significance, including plot twists or unexpected character deaths.

But look, I’ve gone on for long enough about the negatives, and I don’t want to make it sound like I downright disliked this book, because I didn’t; so I think it’s time to talk about the positives. There were a lot of things I enjoyed about this book, not least of all was the world building. So much praise has been heaped onto this facet of the novel and I have to agree 100% with everything that has been said about originality, spirit and vividness of the universe and cultures of The Mirror Empire.

My favorite thing about this book is that it is bold, it is epic, and it is refreshingly different. I love the idea of two realms clashing together in a catastrophic world-shattering event, and also the more minute details like the sentient flora and giant carnivorous plants. Hurley is a great writer with an incredible imagination, and she’s at her best and in her element when she’s actually not trying so hard to turn things on their head or to be over-the-top. I can’t stress how important it is for both authors and readers to examine and confront the status quo and current state of fantasy, but doing something for the sake of doing it is also rarely interesting. Admittedly, Hurley is not at all subtle when it comes to her attempt at subversion in this novel, but at the same time I still respect her immensely for her steadfast interrogation of the genre.

These days, one can probably find some degree of social commentary in many works of speculative fiction; however, my favorite ones tend to be those that arrive at their messages organically, part and parcel with compelling storytelling, starting with well-developed characters. Since it’s the characters that fell flat for me in this case, I just couldn’t immerse myself in the story. It certainly wasn’t for the lack of trying, but as I’ve explained, I’m also aware I have some rather nitpicky and particular tastes. Despite my tepid feelings for this novel, I believe the accolades are well-deserved. Sure, I didn’t love it, but then I’m glad so many others did.

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A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to Angry Robot Books!

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19 Comments on “Book Review: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

  1. I’m actually still trying to get through this. But it’s weird. Certain chapters have me gasping in amazement, and I turn the pages quickly…only to suddenly be in another character’s head that isn’t nearly as interesting. Which makes me put down the book, and I end up checking my email instead (which is how I ended up here, LOL!) I feel like it’s going to all come together in the end, I just feel like I’m never going to get there.

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    • I had a very similar experience. The part I had the most trouble with was the middle, I practically had to push myself to keep reading. The beginning and end went quickly though. At the start I was still learning the characters and interested in knowing more, and as with most epic fantasy novels, this had a pretty intense ending 🙂

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  2. wow many characters there. It’s not something I would usually read I confess but I’m sorry it wasn’t as good as you first thought, mainly if you had big hopes for it.

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  3. Very well said. I especially loved how you applaud the author’s attempt at subversion yet very eloquently pointed out that a story must still have a compelling story and memorable characters in order for it to be a great read.

    Have to also admit it is nice to know I was not the only reviewer who did not “love” this story. Of course, misery loves company. Good luck with the backlash for not jumping on the bandwagon with this one.

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    • On that, I think we felt the same way about this book, though you had specific issues with the “shocking factors” while my big problem was with the lack of memorable characters. I love it when authors take on new ideas in new ways, but you’re absolutely right, an “okay” to “good” book can’t become “great” unless you have the whole package with well developed characters and a compelling story. My hope is that I was balanced in my review, because despite my middling rating I didn’t dislike the book — far from it — and so I talked about what I really liked too. I hope I won’t get any backlash! And I sure hope you didn’t!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ahh, sorry it didn’t live up to your expectations, and I can see how it could fall short if you put characters first. I honest had reservations until about half way through the book. And on the plus side, it would be boring if we all always loved exactly the same books. 🙂

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    • Yes, it’s really hard for me to like a book if I can’t get into the characters first. And you’re right, it’s great when my thoughts align with my bookish friends, but sometimes it’s also interesting when they don’t – fun to see where our opinions differ 🙂

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  5. 3 stars? Should I erase this book from my Christmas wishlist? Ever since I’ve read Nathan’s review for this one, I immediately felt the need to jump into the bandwagon and experience the reversal society created by Hurley.

    Shame that the characters ruined your reading experience with this book. I am like you, I don’t mind getting introduced to a lot of characters but the author must put a lot of work for me to be able to get to know them. But if the plot and the world building and the social message would compensate for that then I think I can handle reading this book. But 3 stars is not that encouraging. A

    And yeah, I also have to throw this out. I’ve heard that this book really takes a lot of brain powers to understand it. Ok, I don’t know how to phrase it but it seems like it’s a hard puzzle to solve. That’s what I am afraid of because I can handle flat characters but if a book makes me work so hard in order to understand what kind of message it’s trying to convey then I would certainly GIVE UP! I don’t need additional stress in my life.

    Anyway, lovely review, Mogsy!

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    • Haha, I wouldn’t erase anything from any wishlists yet! Admittedly, I seem to be a bit of an outlier when it comes to this book. I see a wide range of opinions on Goodreads and while there are certainly those who didn’t like it at all, or those who are like me and thought it was just okay, the majority of the reviews seem on the whole very positive.

      For people like me who put a lot of stock in characters, it might be a bit of a struggle. And you’re right, it is quite a “heavy” read, the kind that really engages the mind. I don’t mind books like this, and in fact, I think we need more “deeper” books like this in the fantasy genre, but because I couldn’t connect with the characters, that just made it doubly hard for me to appreciate any messages. It s a very delicate balance to strike.

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  6. Writing a review for a book that didn’t meet your expectations is rather difficult, but you managed quite well I thought. The premise is good, but unfortunately it seems like the author failed somewhat on the execution. Bold & different can be good things, but without great characters to back them up, the story will inevitably fall short. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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    • Thank you, I did try to strike a fair and balanced tone. Like I said, I didn’t love the book, but in no way did I dislike it either. It didn’t meet expectations, but it definitely has its merits.

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  7. Bold is the perfect way to describe Kameron Hurley’s writing, and just as bold gestures or statements don’t resonate the same way with everyone, neither do books I guess. And I completely agree with you re: books that you can appreciate their literary merit and originality but you didn’t enjoy them for yourself. That’s about half the books I read for my English classes! Since I haven’t read The Mirror Empire yet (why am I always SO BEHIND?!) I can’t say which side I’d fall on, but God’s War was definitely polarizing. Hopefully when you get around to God’s War it’ll be more up your alley. There are fewer characters to keep track of at least!

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    • I’ll keep that in mind when I get to God’s War – I’d actually like to try just enjoying her writing and storytelling, rather than expending all the energy trying to get all the characters in order! Sounds much more promising 🙂

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  8. I haven’t heard of this book, Mogsy. Sometimes I can’t believe that I haven’t heard of an author or book!

    I think characters are really important in a story, too–and too many characters can be hard to relate to. This is a great review. I like how you are able to see the good aspects to the story even as parts of the story didn’t work for you.

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    • Yeah I tried to be more balanced, since through discussions on Goodreads I’m aware that while characters are big for me, that might not be the case for others 🙂

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