Review: Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley

September 30, 2015
Review: Empire Ascendant by Kameron HurleyEmpire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley
Published by Angry Robot on October 6th 2015
Pages: 464

Thanks to Angry Robot for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

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In this thrilling sequel to The Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley transports us back to a land of blood mages and sentient plants, star-driven magic, and warfare on a scale that spans worlds…
Every two thousand years, the dark star Oma appears in the night sky, bringing with it a tide of death and destruction. Tattered rifts open between worlds; great empires are born, and mighty rulers die. Whole nations succumb to madness. And those who survive must contend with friends and enemies newly imbued with bloody powers.
The kingdom of Saiduan already lies in ruin, decimated by invaders from another world who share the faces of those they seek to destroy. Now the nation of Dhai is under siege by the same force. Their only hope for survival lies in the hands of an illegitimate ruler warring with his consort and former lover for control of the nation’s allegiance.
As the foreign Empire spreads across the world like a disease, one of their former allies takes up her own Empress’s sword again to unseat them, and two enslaved scholars begin a treacherous journey home with what they hope is the key to the Empire’s undoing.
But when the enemy you must overcome shares your own face, who can be trusted?

Last year’s The Mirror Empire was one of the most exciting (and sometimes divisive) entries in an already stellar year of fantasy fiction. Kameron Hurley crafted a book that was daring, original, and even challenging. While putting her own spin on the idea of parallel worlds in a post-apocalyptic sort of portal fantasy, she turned gender roles and relationships on their head. It was the most brutally violent female-led fantasy I had ever encountered. It was ambitious, awesome, imaginative, and exhausting in equal measure . . . and I had serious concerns as to how a sequel would fare. Fortunately, the depth she established there proves to have even more layers than we thought, making Empire Ascendant a more than worthy follow-up.

Having brought the two pivotal universes together at the end of the first book, Hurley continues to develop her worlds here. We already had a pretty good idea of the geographies and societies, but this time around we get a much deeper understanding of the politics involved. What impressed me most was the fact that she let both sides have their moments in the spotlight, questioning the means and motives of each. Conflicts both personal and political are dealt with here, and they are as complicated and confusing as you might expect when mirror universes and doppelgangers are involved. There’s no question that the Dhai are the victims here, but beyond that, there are no clear moral or ethical lines. As much as I thought I knew who to root for going in, I came out of the book feeling dirty for rooting quite so hard.

Readers who were concerned that the first book had too many characters and too many points-of-view will find no respite here. Hurley throws even more into the mix, and elevates secondary characters from the first book to positions of significance here. Fortunately, what’s a challenge for some is a reward for others. Even though it’s been a year between books, I immediately reconnected with the characters and was pleased to see them grow and develop even more. Zezili was a dark, deplorable highlight of the first book, but she takes on even more of an edge here. Lilia started to grow stale for me in the first book, serving more as a POV than a character, but we see new life in her here that adds to the overall drama of the tale. In a book defined by its damaged characters, Anavha probably surprised me the most, rising above his victim status in the first book to begin his own significant arc here.

Although this is a second (or middle) book, things actually happen here. With the world, the scenario, and the characters already established, Hurley is free to focus on the action – and she delivers that in spades. This is a fast-paced tale that carries a sense of urgency from page one. You can feel the tension oozing off the page as the characters clash, cultures collide, and worlds approach an end. The plot develops as much, if not more so, than in the first book – and not always in ways you’d expect. There are twists and turns to the tale that even the most jaded readers won’t see coming, as the story careens downhill towards an uncomfortable precipice. Not all of the characters will make it through to to end, and those that do will be irrevocably changed.

While Empire Ascendant won’t win back any fans who were turned off by the violent, reverse sort of sexism and gender-bent sadism of the first book, those who enjoyed The Mirror Empire will come away entirely satisfied.


Bob Milne
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