FTC disclosure: I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
Notes on Diversity:
As with The Mirror Empire, a huge and deliberate amount of diversity is on display in Empire Ascendant. The second installment in the Worldbreaker Saga digs deeper into the explorations and subversions of power and marginalization that were introduced in the first book. For example, more is revealed, very deftly, about the way gender and sexuality function in Dhai Prime vs. Mirror Dhai vs. Saiduan. Issues of dis/ability dig in deeper and deeper, especially in Lilia Sona’s storyline.
While The Mirror Empire was almost exclusively populated by brown people, Empire Ascendant introduced characters I, at least, read as white (in Tordin). The focus remained very strongly on brown voices still in Empire Ascendant.
It took me forever to write this review because this book sat like a stone in my heart.
Kameron Hurley warned us all on twitter that Terrible Things would befall the characters introduced in The Mirror Empire, and she did not lie. But she also didn’t give the whole truth. Empire Ascendant is a deeply complicated book. Yes, it is dark and brutal. But it is also almost bizarrely hopeful. It has these hopeful moments, these moments of hidden triumph, that made the book work for me.
I confess I typically struggle with second-books-in-trilogies. I think, in many ways, Empire Ascendant suffers from what I can only think of as Two Towers syndrome: after doing such a beautiful job pulling together so many disparate stories in the first volume, Empire Ascendant (like Two Towers) then splits those narratives apart. The story fractures again; the driving force of the book is not ‘how are these threads connected?’ as in The Mirror Empire but ‘what happens now that we know that they are connected?’
As a reader who gloms onto characters more than onto plot, these in-between novels are often difficult for me. I am guessing that Empire Ascendant fits well into the overall arc of the Worldbreaker Saga, but the long breaks from one narrative thread to the other left me wondering and drifting a little as a reader. That said, the book still worked for me because in every thread I was invested. In every thread, I still cared about the narrative.1
I’m trying to write this review without spoilers, so I’ll speak now in generalities about things I wish I could dissect in much greater nuance and specificity. The book delves deeper and personalizes the Tai Mora in ways I loved. Empire Ascendant complicated relationships I thought were stable from the first book and stabilized relationships I thought would never work from The Mirror Empire. Many Terrible Things happen. Many decent people are forced into making brutal and vicious decisions because this is a time of war and invasion.2
But healing happens, too. Oh, god, how I wish I could talk about spoilers here because I want to talk about some the the healing arcs in this book so badly. About how one character’s arc so beautifully mirrors something from the first book and in such an unexpected way. About how a character I’ve been rooting for since the beginning gets something–finally–that they deserve, even as the world seems to fall down around them. About the secret kindness delivered to one character that I hoped for but did not think was going to happen, but did. About how one character, when it seems like the entire world has beaten them, rises again: fierce, vicious, brilliant as ever. Self-destructive and walking a knife’s edge, and precisely, exactly what is needed in that moment in that place–and, again, mirroring someone else’s arc in very clever, very subtle ways.
There is much brutality in Empire Ascendant–and portals, and wastelands, and bizarre murderous alien bug creatures, and Bad Plants–but there is gentleness, too. And regrowth. And small moments of justice that very well could lead to larger moments of justice.
Oma is the star of change. Change is a brutal force–brutal, but, at heart, ambivalent.
1I rarely do this–partly to keep from influencing my own reactions to books, and partly because usually I don’t sit with a book so long before writing a review of it–but I read a couple of other people’s reviews of Empire Ascendant to get the juices flowing before actually writing my own. Some people have had trouble, it seems, connecting with the core plot, or character’s motivations for doing what they do in service of it. I have not had that problem.
At Sirens last week, I gushed over Mirror Empire and listened to other people’s critiques of it. And again, those critiques (that it’s full of terrible people, that it’s not a particularly realistic of portrayal of genocide) are valid. Other people bounce off books I don’t.
These books treat me, as a queer and genderqueer reader with disabilities, with so much respect that I am, frankly, so hungry for them that I am, I think, taking them utterly on their own terms. I fell in love with The Mirror Empire because I felt seen by it, recognized by it, like I could exist in that world with a fullness that is unavailable to me in this one, and I engaged with that book at a deep level because of that. My devotion in no way waned while reading Empire Ascendant. I drank both books in like a man dying of thirst drinks water. I can recite the intricacies of the plot to you in my sleep.
2One critique of The Mirror Empire I’ve heard that I don’t fully agree with is that the book is about bad people doing bad things. I think, actually, the books are about mostly decent (and/or deeply broken and complicated people) doing fucked up things they have to do in order to survive. That’s different than, say, Alex in A Clockwork Orange, who truly is a Bad Person doing Bad Things because he is Bad (until the ending or whatever). But, you know, YMMV.
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