Challenging and allegorical science fiction almost feels like a rarity these days, so praise be to Kameron Hurley, a daring writer who asks questions with her work that aren’t always easy to answer.
As the star of Para rises above the titular Mirror Empire, the arcane magic used to fuel everything from warfare down to simple daily tasks is changing. With an invasion on the horizon Lilia, crippled at a young age, may be able to find her mother’s kidnappers after years of waiting. Meanwhile Ahkio, a relative of royalty, finds himself thrust into the spotlight.
From page one Hurley thrusts the reader into a world completely alien to our own. Characters practice unsettling magic fuelled by a combination of stars in ascendance and their own blood yet somehow remain relatable.
What really elevates Hurley’s writing, though, isn’t the story, the characters or even her writing prowess – it’s the issues that she tackles through it.
The society depicted in The Mirror Empire is polygamous and gender-fluid, but without Hurley spotlighting it as shocking or bizarre. It simply exists, taking the gutsy move of tackling sexuality and gender as the internet age gives more prominence to prejudices against trans* individuals and those with more unconventional sex lives.
Class, race and especially religion are story linchpins; heavyweight themes that few writers would have the guts to consider in what could easily have been fantasy pulp.
The only thing letting the novel down is impenetrability – Hurley invests so much effort into the culture the novel focuses on that religions, roles and even character names can become incomprehensible and re-reading is frequently necessary.
But this barely qualifies as criticism. All great art should be challenging and The Mirror Empire is the quintessential example of that, a work that’s nothing short of remarkable.