Notes on Diversity:
If you’re looking for an epic fantasy that takes diversity seriously, this book fits the bill. Hurley writes across an entire planet, and unlike many writers who do so, she writes most of the planet as people of color. A handful of arguably white people pop up, but the majority of the cast is Black or brown–and I read all of the POV characters as people of color. Contributing to that complexity is that two of the POV characters were mixed-race and dealt with the complicated responses to their biracial identity that society reflected back to them.
But that’s not all! One society (Dhai) had a five gender system which emphasized choice; that is, gender was not ascribed to individuals, but instead individuals adopted pronouns and genders as they saw fit. Another culture (Saiduan) had a three gender system with specific pronouns for individuals who did not fit within the binary1; there was less choice presented here, but it was still amazing to see these things called out. It is a rare gem of a book to see alternate genders presented with grace and nuance like this and I, as a genderqueer reader, felt for once like I was actually acknowledged.
Queer sexuality is normal and accepted. Non-monogamous relationships are similarly normal and accepted by at least the Dhai culture.
AND (and!) the arguably most important character in the book has multiple physical disabilities which are never wiped away and which are treated with respect.
Seriously, diversity is firing on all cylinders here.
I loved this book. It’s a wonderful book. Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire is essentially what I wanted Game of Thrones to be: it’s a truly epic fantasy which grapples with fraught ethical questions while immersing me in a meticulously built out world of wonder. But where Game of Thrones was full of White men and rape and ponderous descriptions of what people were eating, The Mirror Empire was full of brown women and consent2 and really good dialogue.
Like Game of Thrones, The Mirror Empire follows multiple POVs, but nearly all of these characters are women and I read all of them as people of color. They are strewn across the world, and slowly their stories intersect as it becomes clear that their entire world is beset by a force from without, brought to bear by an ascendant star and the magical forces that star brings. It’s a convoluted narrative, and if there’s anything to fault the book for it’s that the book races forward and trusts the reader to follow. But I followed. I didn’t have any troubled keeping pace.
The Mirror Empire is notable for so many reasons. It has entire societies led by women, and they are not peaceful, loving societies. It has unabashedly ugly women in it who are not punished for being ugly. It has fat women in it, and their fatness doesn’t matter. Hurley deconstructs so many things in this book it’s impossible to touch on them all in this review without spoiling the book itself, but suffice to say she slices the idea that women are inherently more gentle or nurturing to ribbons in the case Zezilli. She destroys the idea that people with disabilities are fragile and incompetent with Lilia–while adamantly maintaining that those disabilities should be accommodated.
The book serves as the beginning of the Worldbreaker Saga, and it’s a beautiful start. The ending leaves a number of questions open, and I’m dying to find out what happens in Empire Ascendant.
Honestly, this was a book I was waiting to read, and I didn’t even know it. It’s a long story shot through with gender weirdness, questions about autonomy, obligation, and redemption. It’s a challenging story full of challenging characters, and I highly recommend it.
1In Saiduan, it seemed implied that this third gender category was fixed and assigned to intersex individuals.
2Dhai culture, especially, is focused on issues of consent. Casually touching another person without verbal consent given is a taboo. I loved this. Loved it. I wish we had this in our culture.
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