“Some stories you tell, they make things worse. Not better.”
So I picked up The Mirror Empire on the back of Hurley’s first novel God’s War, a dark, noirish SF novel which does some subversive playing around with gender roles and which, needless to say, I enjoyed fiercely.
Superficially, The Mirror Empire could hardly be less like God’s War. While the latter was nasty, brutish and short, a far-future SF noir with Islamic inflections and guns, The Mirror Empire is an enormous tome, an epic fantasy with about ten major characters, at least three warring kingdoms, made-up names and a complex magic system.
The vestiges of a plot can only dimly be discerned through a kind of diffuse fog of character movements. Lilia, an orphan, trades herself for the life of a friend and is taken from her temple home out into a wilderness of carnivorous plants; Ahkio, thrust into a political position for which he has neither the desire nor the skill, struggles to hold his country together; Rohinmey, a young magic-user, is sent on a diplomatic mission to a faraway country; Zezili, a soldier, finds herself having to choose between her Empress and her world; Taigan wrestles with their periodic oscillations between biologically male and biologically female. And behind all of this lies the menacing empire of the title: a dying parallel world whose desperate people are gradually assassinating key figures in this healthier one in order to replace them. It’s this hidden enemy against which the various factions of the novel must unite to fight.
What’s frustrating about The Mirror Empire is that the broad and sweeping epic fantasy story Hurley chooses to tell is so much less interesting than its setting. As in God’s War, Hurley has actually put in the work of (re)imagining a culture – several cultures – very thoroughly different from our own. The difference lies, specifically, in their treatment of gender and sexuality; the three main kingdoms over which the novel takes place have very different gender norms to each other.
- In Dhai, the country from which most of our POV characters come (our POV country, if you like), gender and sex are more or less distinct; a person chooses their gender from a choice of (I think) five. Additionally, the Dhai live in polyamorous family groups made up of about four to six adults of any gender who all sleep with each other.
- Dorinah, the next-door country, is a matriarchy, with men kept as sexual playthings and routinely abused. It’s pretty unpleasant, actually.
- Saiduan, over the sea, has three genders, male, female and ataisa, which, although also distinct from biological sex, are assigned rather than chosen.
So, it seems to me, part of the work this book is doing is rendering cultural gender pressures visible, not only by creating new gender cultures but by having those imagined gender cultures conflicting with each other as the kingdoms try to work together to save themselves. It’s at these interfaces – between polyamory and polygyny, between chosen gender and assigned gender, between sex and gender – that the novel achieves its most profound moments of estrangement; there’s a fantastic moment when the aforesaid Taigan, who is Saiduan, thinks enviously of the five Dhai genders, wondering if life would be better with that extra measure of freedom. The point is, of course, that Saiduan already has three genders, which to the majority of Hurley’s audience seems like a sort of gender utopia. These are moments when not only are the gender pressures obtaining in the novel made visible through contrast; our own gender pressures clash with them, too, and become estranged, made for a moment profoundly different and profoundly alien, so that we can actually, properly, look at them and see their arbitrariness, their fictionality.
This is, clearly, interesting work, and important work, precisely the kind of work fantasy should be doing. I’m not, therefore, quite sure why I didn’t enjoy The Mirror Empire as much as I enjoyed God’s War, or, indeed, at all. I’ve never got on well with epic fantasy, and although Hurley does avoid most of its common pitfalls (gender essentialism, Western-centrism, poor imitation of Tolkien), I think there’s just something in me that rebels at its slow-moving plot and the sheer amount of brainwork it takes to keep track of all the characters.
I think, in summary, that The Mirror Empire is genuinely an excellent work of epic fantasy, and if that’s your thing you should definitely try it. I also think that I just don’t like epic fantasy. Which is nice to know, but also a shame, especially if the genre as a whole continues to move in this promising direction.