"Sorry," Roh said. "I'm Rohinmey Tadisa Garika, a student of Ora Dasai's. Forgot about Saiduan privacy. I meant no offense. We're very open here."
The sanisi sheathed his blade.
Roh had not gotten a good look at the sanisi back in the foyer. Now that he was up close, he realized he had made a false assumption. The sanisi was tall, far taller than any Dhai, and dark, with twisted rings of black hair knotted close to his head, though it looked like it had been shorn short not many months back. The ends were ragged. It was the sanisi's face, though, that made Roh pause. The hair that graced the sanisi's upper lip and the sides of the cheeks was soft and downy. Roh had seen pictures of Saiduan men, and they all had short but noticeable beards. (p. 38)
Epic fantasies, especially their opening volumes, are difficult books to review. The reviewer has to not only take into account that there likely will be no complete character or plot arcs, that there will be a suspension of events in order to build for the subsequent volumes. Then there is the necessary acclimation to created "worlds" and cultures, with alien-sounding character and place names and perhaps ways of life that differ considerably from those depicted in more realist stories. Although certainly not a prerequisite, there is often more mass violence (battles, assassinations, duels) in epic fantasies than in most other literary genres. If a reviewer has difficulties with some of these elements, it can make it much more difficult to enjoy the opener to an epic fantasy series even when the author has gone to some length to introduce elements, such as gender and race, that are often either neglected or presented in a fashion that would alienate those who are not males or are Caucasian.
For readers who want to find "something different" in epic fantasy, Kameron Hurley's first epic fantasy, The Mirror Empire, may appeal greatly to them. Over the course of 449 pages (I presume the Nook e-edition I read equates to the print pages), there is a lot that transpires within its pages: two seemingly parallel worlds starting to merge; a five-gender system in which "traditional" power/status structures are upended; three distinct cultures, each with its own dynamics, including a sordid pogrom taken up against one of those cultures; semi-sentient mobile plants who are a terror and people who use bears with forked tongues as a mount; and a magical system based on the waxing and waning of satellites. This should be excellent fodder for those who long for imaginative, inventive fantasy elements, but yet... Yes, but yet..., as there were several major flaws that kept me from enjoying The Mirror Empire.
Structurally, the opening chapters are a mess. Hurley has to expend a lot of pages to establish these series of subplots that it makes it not just a bit difficult to follow, but it also makes them rather prosaic. Introduce quickly a setting, don't devote the space to making these settings "organic" to the plot, move on to the next subplot setting, rinse, repeat. By the time the first quarter is over, everything is just so muddled. There are two main reasons this confusion is exacerbated, the prose and characterizations.
To be honest, Hurley's writing feels much more like an extended outline than a polished narrative at the syntactical level. The narrative is just too staccato. The descriptions are sparse, feeling perfunctory. This leaves the settings, which should be interesting with these inventive creatures like the acid-spitting plants and forked-tongued bear mounts, barren of anything of real interest. The fact that there are two portal worlds that seem to be bleeding into each other only makes this lack of scenery development all the more disappointing. There really was nothing that stood out here in terms of setting. The spartan prose also affects the dialogue, as those to often felt as though a bunch of high school Drama I students forced to take the class were just mumbling their lines, with little conviction behind them.
This makes the characterizations feel hollow, flat. Hurley tries to present a plethora of views and have certain scenes that underscore the different socio-gender power structures, but as can be seen in the scene quoted below, the potential falls short:
Zezili must have shown her disapproval in her face, because he interrupted before she could dissent, hurried on. "Just the daily papers from Daorian. I know your feeling about books, and Daolyn feels that way as well, but surely, what harm is there in papers? Just some news from outside? There was a silk merchant through here last week, she –"
"I regret that we have had no children," Zezili said. A sore subject indeed, in any company. "I have heard that a man assisting in the raising of children often finds some fulfillment from it, but I'm here to take life in Rhea's name, not give it."
"You should just dedicate your body to her as well, then," Anavha said. A bit too cutting for Zezili's taste.
Zezili's anger stirred. "You would like that, wouldn't you?" she said. "Having a sexless woman for a wife? Yes, you'd like taking solace in none but your own body. Because that's all I would allow you. My sisters have no use for you. Who will touch you then? Or will you content yourself to be a mad little thing, running after dajian effeminates?"
She saw Anavha clenching his fists, saw the anger in him, and saw it dissipate into tears. Rhea only allowed him tears. (pp. 66-67)
The first thing I noticed in this passage is that Hurley depends too much on description between the quotes. The pair's faces have to be described, as apparently the words alone cannot give an accurate depiction. Even worse, there are extraneous sentences, such as "A sore subject indeed, in any company.", whose incomplete fragments do not further the emotional establishment, but instead feel like placeholders for more direct, intense descriptors. This occurs so frequently in the narrative that this is not an isolated case, but instead is a prominent flaw in the narrative. The characters' emotions and thoughts are reduced to sounding almost robotic that this plethora of weak narrative intrusions.
These choppy, weak sentences made for a difficult reading experience. There was no elegance to these scenes. I could see the narrative bolts so often that it was difficult to put that aside and to concentrate on the unfolding story. This is a shame, for there were times that the story was interesting, that I was engaged, and that I wanted to see how these subplots involving power and resistance while so many strange, magical things were occurring would unfold. As I write this a day after finishing it, all that comes to mind is that there were a lot of things happening, but few things that meant much at all. Perhaps the fault is in the stars, or in my inability to connect with this complex series of plot and character developments. But perhaps it's as simple as a good story being held back by structural flaws that, if fixed, could have made The Mirror Empire a great epic fantasy opener. As it stands, this novel is just a hot mess.