This is both a review for The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley, and a commentary on Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone, which was previously reviewed in a guest post by one of the editors (you can check out his great post here). I lump these two seemingly unrelated books together because I believe that they both suffer from the same problem: the author has built an amazing and interesting world with cool concepts and ideas, but the fun of it is sucked out by generally bad character writing and prose. Sorry to spoil my final synopsis in the introduction, but today I am going to be talking about how no matter how cool your book is – if all your characters are terrible I do not want to read it.
Let us start off with the good. The Mirror Empire has without a doubt one of my favorite magic systems I have ever read. The magic of the book is based on four moon/satellites that orbit the planet – waxing and waning on different schedules. Various mages and kingdoms are attuned to different moons, and their strength waxes and wanes with them – on average coming into power for 10ish years and then being powerless for the next ten with lots of overlap. What this does is create an extremely interesting setting of countries going to town on one another as they rise and fall in strength. It creates a very believable scenario where people are being invaded and invading others on a decade cycle that is unending and I love it. The plot of the book revolves around the small dark moon that no one thinks about coming into power for the first time in a long time, and how it is mixing up the landscape. Additionally, there is a parallel dimension where the moons have different alignments and different people have different powers and it all somehow comes into play making everything go topsy turvy. I say somehow because I did not finish The Mirror Empire, and stopped at about 50%.
If the last bit of the previous paragraph sounds confusing and overwhelming, than you would have the same feelings I did when I eventually put The Mirror Empire down.The book has a lot of great ideas floating around in it, but it feels like there are too many and that they bog down the plot and make it incomprehensible. I am ok with being in the dark and learning as I go – but when I hit the 50% mark and still didn’t really understand what was happening, and then Hurley introduced the fact that there were also going to be unexplained multiple dimensions in play, I felt overwhelmed and decided to just put the book down. This was also not helped by the fact that I did not enjoy any of the characters at all. They all seemed indistinguishable from one another to me, with the rare exception of a few being irritable to read about. I know that seems harsh but there is a lot more time spent developing the world in The Mirror Empire than the people. The characters feel like hollow vehicles that are used to push the plot along in order to showcase more cool ideas.
As mentioned, this is the same problem I ended up having with Two Serpent Rise, by Max Gladstone, despite my editor’s praise. The characters in the book just came off as truly unlikable, but mostly uninteresting. As a result, the book started to feel like a loosely threaded connection of cool ideas for a world that were stuffed into a book with no cohesion. However, those ideas are really, really cool. To give credit where credit is due, in both books I found the worlds amazing, and with a better cast I would be unsurprised to find them rising to the top of my recommendations.
Both of these books are prime examples of a personal cardinal rule for me as a reader. I will read, and love, a character driven book that has a boring backdrop hanging around it. However, no amount of cool settings will allow me to get past unrelatable characters. A book needs more than good ideas, it needs a cohesive and well written narrative to help those ideas grow and flourish. As a result, I ended up putting down The Mirror Empire and I do not recommend you pick it up.
Rating: The Mirror Empire – DNF