The Worldbreaker Saga
by Kameron Hurley
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 2, 2015
Addendum & edits on December 16, 2019
Book 1: The Mirror Empire / 2: Empire Ascendant / 3: The Broken Heavens
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Be warned that I will be revealing a lot of background information, but I'll try to avoid specific plot details. Before I get into what I think about The Mirror Empire I should repeat something I've said multiple times over the years; I'm more partial to science fiction than fantasy. Even when I do venture into that territory it tends to be more urban fantasy, like the recently reviewed The Library at Mount Char. Most all of Hurley's work is in the 'epic' fantasy mode. I've read very little of that beyond Tolkien, it just doesn't appeal to me that much. However, it seems to be more popular with a growing number of readers. I've been trying to read more of a variety over the past few years, and I do need to read as much current work as I can if I hope to keep up with other readers/reviewers, as well as to know what might be worthy of a Hugo nomination next year. Last year, Hurley's "We Have Always Fought" was the first internet blog post to win a Hugo for Best Related Work. She has a large following on both Facebook and Twitter, as well as her own blog. I think it likely Empire Ascendant will be on some nominating ballots next year. I doubt it will be on mine though.
What puts me off about a lot of fantasy series, or at least what I perceive them to be, is they're little more than retellings of medieval stories; valiant knights, damsels in distress, dragons, witches, warlocks, some mystical spell or enchanted amulet, mostly in settings that seem to hark back to some forgotten age of Earth. I give Hurley credit for being more imaginative than that. There is magic here, but she has created completely new worlds and new species of people, animals and plants, although some may have familiar names and/or descriptions. For instance, there are no horses, but the 'humans' ride both bears and dogs. That doesn't mean those animals are anything like those on Earth, since the dogs are obviously much larger than Earth species, and the bears have been domesticated. It's possible those were just the closest comparison to animals we know. It seems clear that the people are not from Earth originally, nor are they likely to be our ancestors, not unless much evolution has occurred in the interim. There are more than just two genders [EDIT: a later reveal says there are at least five], and some individuals can change gender during their lifetimes, sometimes, but not always, voluntarily.
The planet is known as Raisa. There are numerous suns, moons and other satellites in the system, although the descriptions of their orbits and properties are confusing at times. Raisa has three distinct moons, and one red sun known as Mora. The other orbiting bodies (Para, Sina, Tira and Oma) might be sister stars, maybe other planets, possibly something entirely different. What sets them apart from anything we are aware of in our solar system is that their orbits are not only irregular, but also not predictable. Their appearance in the skies of Raisa range from a couple of years for one, up to seven for another, but Oma is absent for thousands of years at a time. Some people, known as 'jistas,' are able to channel different powers from these satellites. There are temples dedicated to training these jistas, at least in the country of Dhai. It is one of several separate nations on the island of Grania, just to the northwest of the major continent of Saiduan. If I understood correctly, Grania used to be connected to the main continent, but was separated from it in a cataclysm the last time Oma (the Worldbreaker) was in Raisa's sky, some two thousand years previously. Whenever any of the satellites are in the sky (in ascendance) the jistas associated with it are stronger; when it is descending, or absent, their powers weaken or disappear. Since Oma is considered the most powerful of the satellites, an omajista is stronger than any other, plus they have the ability to draw power from the other satellites as well. The reappearance of Oma seems to be approaching.
That's just the beginnings of the complexities of this saga. There are also parallel worlds to and from which some omajistas can open portals. At first I thought it was just one other, later it is stated there may be an infinite number. In at least one of these alternate dimensions there is another Raisa, inhabited by duplicate peoples. For some reason not detailed (or I possibly missed a few clues) the other Raisa is dying and its inhabitants (the Tai Mora) have been attempting to invade the alternate, but that has been a long process due to the fact that an individual of one world cannot move to its alternate if their duplicate is still alive. In a few instances, some duplicates had already died, allowing their alternates to come over and work in secret, killing other select individuals to make way for others to cross over. Some of the Tai Mora oppose the invasion, and after crossing over they have endeavored to place themselves in positions of influence in various kingdoms in order to work against the invaders. At the same time, some corrupt people have allied themselves with the Tai Mora and work against their own countrymen. Cross, double-cross and even triple-cross; it's hard to know who to trust or to root for. It's doubly frustrating when several characters I assumed would be key to the action were killed off early. There's a multitude of characters, many with similar names, many with duplicates still on the other Raisa anxious to cross over. Every chapter alternates between locations and focuses on the actions of different characters, sometimes with so many chapters between one person's appearance that I had a hard time remembering who they were and what they were up to the last time they were featured. It's a good thing there is a glossary of names and places available, but since it is hard to continually switch to those pages on a Kindle I had to start taking notes.
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Empire Ascendant is another title I received in advance from NetGalley. I purchased Mirror Empire to read first, and I now know it would have been impossible to judge the second book without it. Ascendant won't be released until October 6, but is available for pre-order. I believe the third book will be titled Legion, and will likely be out around the same time next year. [EDIT: Wrong on both counts. The third book will be The Broken Heavens, and there was more than a four year wait.] Even though I'm not completely sold on this story I will likely read the conclusion, especially if I can get another advance copy. My main criticism of these books is that they are over-written. I do not mean overblown, flowery prose, or too-long descriptive passages. The problem is just too much story, too many fantastical elements, some of which could have been eliminated to tighten up the narrative. There are many different species of dangerous plants, which are mentioned early and often in the first book, later they don't figure into the narrative much. Maybe they are only prevalent in certain areas, because we are first told they need to be cut away and burned frequently in order to keep them away from villages and roadways, later much travel is recounted with no mention of dangerous plants. Of course I don't know where the story will go in the third book, and I'm sure Ms. Hurley would disagree, but I think the base story could have been told in one volume. The extra details might be appropriate if she intended an ongoing series, but she promises it will only be a trilogy.
Perhaps it is possible to have too much world-building, too many elements that clutter the narrative and make it hard to follow. It's possible I wasn't paying close enough attention. There were at least two times during the reading that I got bored and set it aside for at least a day before getting back to it. Again, it's just not the type of story that generally appeals to me. A re-read might clear a few things up, but I don't think that will happen. I'm definitely not saying that Hurley is not a good writer, in fact a re-read probably won't be necessary because her descriptions of her characters, their motivations, and the physical landscape is very vivid. She does need to work on her plotting, which is so convoluted I'm not sure even she knows where it will end up. In some cases complexity can be a plus, but here it's just overly confusing. Dhai is just one of the nations on Grania, and characters from several others (as well as some from Saiduan) are woven into the story, but which ones will be important for the conclusion is unclear. Several characters have already been killed off, and I'm unsure about the fate of at least one other, one whom I would think would be very important. Another was only mentioned by name numerous times through both books, but when she actually appears she is killed immediately. What was the point? If it was to show how her killer was an uncontrollable megalomaniac it wasn't necessary, that was already perfectly clear. Toward the end of this book, another strange adversary is revealed, apparently from yet another of the parallel worlds. There is also a passage that seems to suggest the four satellites are not physical things, but rather the manifestations of spiritual entities. Color me confused.
It's great that more women are being published, more strong female characters created. However, does 'strong female character' have to mean that those women are just as ruthless and blood-thirsty as any man? Shouldn't they be better than the men? I don't think a man has to be a warrrior, physically strong or quick to kill, in order to be a hero, so neither should a woman. A story about a man who kills indiscriminately, or who abuses or rapes women would not appeal to me, why would I want to read about a woman who does the same to men? Only one of the women is what I would consider noble, even though she has had to do things she deplored. She's one of the omajistas, but for some reason has lost her power. Will she get it back, and if not, how will she be the heroine it seems she was destined to be? If she gets killed off I'll really be upset. It might be okay if others die, since that would mean fewer to keep up with. Maybe it's okay if all the women aren't honorable. If a male writer can be praised for creating a sympathetic female character, surely a woman should be cited for writing a couple of male characters which I consider the most admirable. Unfortunately, one of those might be dead, but I hope not. The second book was shorter than the first although it seemed longer. Will the third need to be even longer in order to wrap everything up satisfactorily? Has Hurley written herself into a corner and can she get out of it? Will the world break again, and who will still be standing at the end?
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As I said above, I had been thinking a re-read of the first two books might not be necessary, since Hurley's descriptions and exposition was vividly rendered, I'd be sure to remember. However, there was more than a four year wait for The Broken Heavens, I've read nearly 300 books since then, and didn't have the time to re-read. Besides, I guess I had given up because this was pushed back so many times, and I'd foolishly deleted the ARC of the second book from my Kindle, so I couldn't even read the last few chapters to refresh my memory. This will be published next month, January 14, 2020, but I was once again fortunate to get an advance e-book from Net Galley (and Edelweiss too). I had a problem with the ARC though; it did not have a menu that allowed me to switch back to previous chapters, or access the appendix. I wasn't sure it even had an appendix until I got to the end of the book. I was reading the ARC provided by Net Galley; if only I'd known the Edelweiss ARC had a fully functional table of contents menu. Sigh.
Thus I was confused as this one began, little memory of the conclusion of the previous book, too many characters with similar names, some from Raisa-Prime, others from the alternate world, and as the book progressed it was obvious many other alternate worlds were also represented. The only one I clearly remembered was Lilia, the one I said was sure to be the ultimate heroine, and she was, but not before a long and arduous journey back and forth across the continent, both physically and through 'winks.' It seems that portals were not just between one alternate world to another, some jistas could do so from one area of their world to another, but usually only to places they had been to before. Everyone continued to work at cross purposes, with selfish disregard of other opinions, and that included Lilia. More betrayals than you could shake an infused weapon at, it became impossible to figure out if there were any good people in the story at all. Plus the continued confusion about the different satellites in the sky, how people could draw power from them, why some could draw from Para but not Sina or Tira, why some omajistas could draw from all four. There was speculation they were not natural phenomenon, but rather had been created through some supernatural means.
Hurley is ambitious, and since I'm partial to science fiction I need to read some of her work in that vein, one of which I already have. Perhaps I'll like it more. While I am not recommending these books, neither am I saying they won't appeal to others. I may even re-read them myself, but if so it will be all three together as quickly as I can, maybe with the appendix printed out for easy reference.
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