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[personal profile] sawyl
In her latest novel, The Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley has stepped away from the SF world of the Bel Dame Apocrypha in favour of epic fantasy. Set in a place where magical abilities wax and wane with the complex cycle of a series of moons and where most of the everyday tools of life are biological, teased into shape by the power of the moon Tira. At it's core, the story is an investigation of genocide, with groups of very similar people — in some cases, the very same people, just from a different universe — killing each other over the most minor of differences or to satisfy the hidden agenda of a powerful leader who seems to care not at all for the interests of their own people.

The action takes place in three different states — Dhai, Dorinah, and Saiduan — each of which is mirrored in a parallel universe, where the same person may be a devout pacifist in one world and an ambitious warlord in another. Taken in combination with the large cast of characters and Hurley's decision to eschew info-dumps in favour of allowing meaning to emerge from context, all of this makes the initial chapters feel a little overwhelming but the book is well worth the effort.

At the start of the book, Ahkio Jarvia Garika is happily teaching ethics in a small village when he receives news that his sister, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Dhai, is dying. Initially reluctant to succeed his sister, Ahkio changes his mind when an attempt on his life makes it clear that his life will be in danger regardless of whether he becomes Kai or not. Meanwhile, in the Empire of Saiduan, Maralah Daonia is struggling to counter a powerful and mysterious army of invaders who have the strength to push her forces out of one stronghold after another. Knowing that the moon Oma is on the rise for the first time in two thousand years, Maralah sends the disgraced sanisi Taigan to Dhai to recruit more magicians attuned to its power.

Lilia, a young scullery maid, is living a rather overlooked life in the Temple of Oma when Rohinmey, her only friend, is seriously injured. Realising that the only way she can save Roh's life is to make a bargain with Taigan, who happens to be visiting the temple, Lilia leaves the only existence she has known in the company of the sanisi, with the intention of manipulating him into helping her search for her long ago vanished mother. Off to the east in the Empire of Dorinah, Captain General Zezili Hasaria has been charged by Empress Casalyn to work with a group of of strangers, the Tai Mora, whose orders involve exterminating everyone living in the Dhai slave labour camp.

The different plot threads are tied together by Lilia and Roh, who meet the other major characters on their respective journeys and connect up the events of the Saiduan war with its roots in Dhai history. The different societies are clearly drawn and differentiated, from the pacifistic and open Dhai, with their extended polygamous clans and five different expressions of gender, to the hierarchical and deeply unequal Dorinah, where men are treated as chattel and all manual labour is done by groups of enslaved Dhai. The Saiduan too practice slavery, but unlike the Dorinah, they extend beyond racial groupings with the current rulers enslaving those they have overthrown in their fight to reach power.

The world — worlds, even — are beautifully detailed, with much of the technology provided by trees and plants coaxed into the right shapes by the power of the moon Tira. The forests are harsh environments filled with poisonous plants and dangerous herds of walking, where great skill is required to survive. Lilia, a woodland Dhai, is repeatedly uses her knowledge of the local flora to trick more powerful opponents into potentially deadly situations that leave them at her mercy. The cyclical nature of the lunar orbits means that no particular group of wizards can ever hold absolute power for long, because however strong they may be when their satellite its at its peak, they know that they will inevitably have to deal with the diminution of their power when it sinks again.

The Mirror Empire is a demanding book, especially early on, but it is also a rewarding read and a strong start to what promises to be an interesting series.
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