by Kameron Hurley
There is something about picking up the second in a series. You already know you like the concept or you wouldn’t bother to continue, but this time it’s different. The story has to hold up not only to its internal standard but to your memories of the first book and it takes a skilled author to manage that. Luckily Kameron Hurley counts as a skilled author and in Empire Ascendant she unravels the story into something even bigger without once dropping the thread.
For you poor souls who haven’t picked up the first of the Worldbreaker series (The Mirror Empire), it is set in a multiverse where the worlds are dominated by stars in the sky that switch and change over time. Each one brings changes with its ascent and each one gives power to a certain group of people. When the most destructive and rarest star, Oma, begins its ascent the worlds are drawn closer together and the barriers grow thin. Those in dying worlds begin their attempt to conquer another to keep their kind going past all odds. Through a select group of varied characters we are shown through the complexities of war and loyalty from people trying to achieve their conflicting goals.
That’s what sets this book apart: complexity. Whether you’re talking about the unusual gender constructs between the different cultures or about the many motivations for slaughter and mercy, Empire Ascendant has you covered. Nothing is dumbed down. No morality is considered superior to another; they merely exist and are portrayed through the struggles of characters that cannot truly be taken as good or bad.
In other words, it feels real. Even with the stars and the magic and the windows between worlds, the characters are believable, though they are not comfortable.
Take Zezili. By far the most interesting character in the books so far, she is a horrible person. She abuses her husband in her chauvinistic entitlement. She is sexist to the lesser gender of men (brutally portrayed as weak in her culture, and even forced into girdles to keep their narrow hips). She has slaughtered countless slaves and others with no qualms. Yet although you may not agree with her methods, you understand her reasoning and want her to survive. Though I would hate to meet her down a dark alley she is an excellent mirror into a person twisted by circumstance and privilege.
Zezili and her husband twist ordinary fantasy sexism on its head. With a strong, violent wife and a weak, submissive husband it would be easy within the context of our culture to play them for laughs, but Kameron Hurley never does. The characters are not caricatures. They have motivations and conflict within themselves and are both doing the best they can in a rigid gendered society.
Though some people have decried the first book as sexist I believe that’s too narrow a view. Nothing in these books is given a moral judgment; it is portrayed as it would be in reality, often giving you some insight into how we in our own world view gender without shoving it too far down your throat. It’s a fascinating way to get new viewpoints across and never in my life would I have thought a gender neutral character might get hir own chapters. It is refreshing and should be celebrated, especially when it is done so well.
Usually I would have problems keeping up with so many characters; like A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin the chapters switch between characters and cities and worlds, but it’s never hard to follow. It is always a smooth transition even with the added characters of the second book. If you’re a fan of intense fantasy with an impressive death toll, Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley is the book for you. Good news! It’s out in October, so preorder it now.