One of the difficult things about reviewing books for me personally is having to write a less than favorable opinion. Not that I can’t be just as negative as the next person, because obviously it’s not hard to close a novel and say to a friend “Don’t waste your time. That story sucked.” Nope, my problem is trying to isolate why I did not appreciate a novel, analyze if my issues are just that: my issues, or a real deficiency of the story, and then write an honest review.
For those of you who don’t write reviews, please understand that it is difficult to be both honest and also objective. Mainly, because – if you love books – you want to adore every one of them that you read (if for no other reason than you’ve invested your precious time trying them), and, when that doesn’t happen, your initial reaction as a human is to say “I hate it” and leave it at that. But a reviewer can’t do that. It just isn’t fair to anyone interested in reading the book. So, as I sit here wanting to say “The Mirror Empire isn’t that good. Don’t read it”, I know I have to attempt to explain why I feel that way.
First, I want to establish up-front that I was excited to read The Mirror Empire. When I initially saw the kick-ass cover and read the novel description, it looked tailored made for my tastes: multi-viewpoint narrative, huge world, cross-world warfare, and gender-bender characters. When you factor in Kameron Hurley’s recent Hugo award, you might understand how an epic fantasy lover like me would be breathlessly waiting to fall in love with the Worldbreaker saga. And to be fair, this novel absolutely delivers on several of its promises.
That spectacular new world, it is here. In fact, there are two rather than one for a reader to sink their fantasy teeth into, filled with numerous countries, races, deep history, ongoing wars, and sentient plant-life that range from those symbiotic to womankind to those completely predatory.
Naturally, these worlds are teeming with magic: a very well-thought-out system of magic whereby it is controlled by a person’s innate ability and her attunement to one of several moons that orbit the planet. As certain moons ascend and descend in the heavens, a mage’s power waxes and wanes as does her magical sect’s worldly power and influence.
As for the warrior-women promised by the book description, they appear one after another: complex and powerful females who take their turn in the spotlight, empowered both physically and emotionally as unquestioned masters of all that they survey. No, ma’am, these ladies do not concern themselves with exerting their equality to their male counterparts, because they are superior in every way: a natural state of affairs that is beyond doubt.
But as I slowly devoured and digested all these essential and delectable fantasy morsels, I began to have a little bit of heartburn. (Please pardon the pun, but I couldn’t help myself.) I didn’t know exactly why – though there were a few things nagging at me as I read.
First, the complete lack of any strong male characters did bother me. The fact that male characters were taught that they were “unnatural” didn’t sit well with me. Kai Ahkio (the most prominent male character in the novel) being constantly berated for being male and told that he is a poor substitute for a strong female leader was annoying. And yes, the book did read at times like a mirror version of a Robert E. Howard sword and sorcery tale, complete with childlike men waiting for their rescue by muscle-bound females ready to rip their clothes off and mount up on their throbbing manhood. But, I’d known going in that The Mirror Empire was a female dominated story, so, even though the lack of strong men was an issue, it was not enough to trump the good parts of the story.
Then something else reared its ugly head: rape – except this time, women were raping men.
Now, I’m not a prude; I realize rape happens. In fact, as an attorney, I’ve defended more rapists than I can count on both hands. But, I’m also not a big proponent of rape as a narrative device in literature. It seems so overused as a shock effect that I don’t enjoy it. Even in Mark Lawrence’s grimdark masterpiece Prince of Thorns, I was a bit bothered by Jorg Ancrath’s casual raping of girls at the beginning of the book, because it didn’t seem necessary or relevant to the story. (Jorg doesn’t go on to become a serial rapist but a serial murderer.) Hell, I even agreed with people who very emotionally argued that no one should view Jorg as a hero after he casually went around raping girls. So how could I uphold a female author allowing one of her “female heroes” to rape and brutalize men?
Perhaps I should introduce our heroic rapist first before I answer that question.
Let us welcome Zezili Hasario, Captain General of the Empress of Dorinah, who shows casual indifference to cruelty, a perverted sense of love, and a total acceptance of mass murder – even as she goes about trying to save the world. Where Jorg raped two young girls, Zezili purchased herself a beautiful man, spent her leisure time sexually torturing him, and justified it by saying, “He [is] the one thing in [my] life [I] controlled completely. And [I] loved him for it.” Indeed, after their wedding, Zezili’s husband Anavha says, “[Zezili] made [me] strip in her bedroom . . . cuffed [me] across the mouth, drawing blood . . . told [me] to kneel . . . took [my] chin in her hand and said, ‘You’re mine. All of you. Every bit of you. You’ll service my sisters, because it’s proscribed’ . . . [then] cut her initials into [my] flesh . . . licked at the blood of [my] wound . . . reached for [me], and found [me] . . . erect [then said] ‘Well . . . they paired me well.’ ” And then Anahva goes on to describes his continued life with our hero Zezili as follows:
“Zezili was a brutal mistress; demanding, violent. She entertained herself with [me] until [my] vision was hazy, pain and desire twisting [my] insides, turning [my] voice to a high-pitched wail, begging for release. Yet when she finished with [me], [I] felt somehow obscene, disassembled. . . [I] sat awake at night and cut [myself] while she was away . . . wondering if Zezili would mourn if [I] died, or simply have [me] replaced, as she would her dog . . .”
Yeah, Zezili’s behavior sounds at least equal to Jorg Ancrath’s psychopathic rape of two girls. Actually, there is even more about Zezili and her husband, but I think the above illustrates the nature of their relationship. Just so you know, later Anavha also gets raped by another woman-warrior, but it wasn’t Zezili, so I didn’t see the need to quote that section of the story.
So, after reading all that, did the accepted brutalization of men, their sexual torture, and casual rape at the hands of women bother me?
Well, I’m sorry to admit that I once again talked myself out of holding the brutalization against this book. “Stop having such a closed mind,” I told myself. “Okay, men are sex toys. There is probably lots of fantasy out there that still portray women that way.” Hell, I even used this one. “Ms. Hurley has put a little bit of Fifty Shades of Grey in a fantasy and Zezili is Christian Grey, so what? It is her pushing the boundaries of the genre; nothing wrong with that.”
But even as I convinced myself to put aside the lack of male characters and the brutalization of men, I was slapped in the face by something else: ritualistic cannibalism.
Yeah, these fantasy people cannibalize each others. Okay. Certain Native Americans did it before the arrival of the Europeans, I know. I’ll just put that “shocking” fact on the list with the others. I’m sure human hearts taste like chicken anyway.
Next on the “shock” list, we have (Drumroll please) no heterosexual characters.
Okay. It seemed a little odd that no one – even just one person – might be heterosexual and not bisexual. But that was fine, I accepted it and moved on.
Bit by bit, it also became apparent that everyone in this world practiced polygamy. Okay, Old Testament of the Bible reversed with the women marrying multiple males and females.
Then we have a male character Roh being taken as a sexual slave to an adult near the end of the book.
Anyone else beginning to see a pattern here?
Ms. Hurley appeared to be pulling out all the stops to “shock” her readers. Now why would an author do that?
Perhaps it is because the story itself is deficient?
Unfortunately, that was the case, in my opinion. Let me explain.
First, none of the main characters in this epic were very compelling. In fact, they were almost instantly forgettable. Zezili? I’m not big on rapist and mass murderers, but even setting that aside, the general was fairly boring, doing little except killing defenseless people in prison camps. Ahkio? Everyone around him thinks him a weak, whiny man, and even though he tries, he spends a great deal of time pining away over men and women, his horrible fate, and generally being exactly what all his enemies accusing him of being: a weak, whiny man manipulated by his female handlers. Roh? According to the women in the book, he is an idiotic boy, not much else you can add. Lilia? I actually liked her, thought her story was compelling but lost interest in it by the end due to the constant back and forth nature of her travels. Naturally, there are other characters, but these are the ones I actually remember.
Second, the concept of mirror worlds and their convergence had some glaring inconsistences in its explanation and application that kept cropping up in the story. Things that I would read and go “Wait, that can’t be the case because of the explanation two chapters ago.” After a while, I stopped caring whether the cross-world action made sense anymore.
Third, the multi-viewpoint narrative. Almost all epic fantasy series seem to have this type of setup these days, and it definitely can work. However, the writer must make the individual tales relevant to the narrative as a whole but keep them different enough that each one is compelling on its own and filled with new situations. In The Mirror Empire, it seemed that the numerous stories got away from Ms. Hurley; they began to spread out into a mass of tangled threads that I personally needed a flowchart to keep up with, but they also began to get so repetitive that they blurred together until I found it hard to recall whose story I was actually reading at a given time.
Needless to say, I did not love The Mirror Empire. With its mirror world concept, the book had a wonderful foundation upon which to build a riveting, fantasy epic. However, just like a solid foundation does not assure a beautiful house, Ms. Hurley’s spectacular, fantasy ideas did not guarantee an engrossing story, and perhaps she realized this, which is why she began to rely so heavily on “shocking” elements. However, all the reversal of sexual roles, rape, sexual torture, ritualistic cannibalism, mass murder, and teenage sex slaves in two universe can’t conceal when a story is convoluted and dull at the same time.