Please forgive the lateness of this review. Kameron Hurley’s bloody, thrilling mic-drop of a fantasy novel, The Broken Heavens, hit bookstores in mid-January, and here it is, almost March Madness, and only now am I typing out judgments like “bloody,” “thrilling,” and “mic-drop of a fantasy novel.” The business of reviewing is bound up with the business of publicity, which demands that the critics who receive review copies of books get the job done reasonably close to the release date. But Hurley’s latest closes out a trilogy, capping the Nebula and Hugo winner’s first (bloody, bloody) stab at epic fantasy, and reviewing an epic fantasy trilogy is less like reviewing a book than like reviewing a months-long road trip, right down to the intense consultation of maps.
Back before the release date, I read 60 pages of The Broken Heavens and marveled, as I had with the first two books in Hurley’s Worldbreaker Saga, at the author’s relentless inventiveness, zest for storytelling, breathtaking ruthlessness, and scorched-earth policy toward expectations. Here’s an epic fantasy where every character and genre convention is an endangered species. Readers of her collection The Geek Feminist Revolution know that Hurley’s an ace critic as well as a novelist, and this series at times reads like an exhortation to epic fantasy itself, a battle cry of “Fantasy should be fantastic!”
To that end, Raisa, the scarred world her characters war over, teems with carnivorous plant life, alien invaders, ancient temples with living skin, a vine-and-chrysalis public transportation system, and a bevy of cultures whose conceptions of gender and power resemble noting in Middle Earth or Westeros. In Hurley’s fantasy, a character from the culture with three genders will struggle choosing pronouns when dealing with someone from the culture with five.
The story concerns invented astronomy, political wrangling across four countries and a multitude of worlds, proper nouns enough to demand a glossary, and an invasion from at least one counter-world that sends through interdimensional rifts conquest-minded doppelgangers of the residents of Raisa. (One of Hurley’s great twists on alt-dimension characters: There can only be one of each person in each world, so a cross-dimensional invasion demands a genocide traced with suicide.) This is a lot to keep track of, even by the standards of epic fantasy. By book three, one character is the third distinct individual to bear her name and face.
It’s perhaps understandable, then, that after 60 pages I had little idea what was going on. And that’s despite an exhaustive glossary and Hurley’s welcome new willingness to assign her characters some clarifying expository dialogue. The second Worldbreaker book, The Empire Ascendant, came out in 2015, and I hadn’t revisited since then.
That called for a road trip. Back I went to the start, to 2014’s blistering The Mirror Empire, release dates be damned. I don’t expect a more pleasurable — or intense — reading experience this year. The Mirror Empire leads with its (and its author’s) strengths: Hurley plunges is into a vicious world, dazzles with her inventions and provocations, and dares readers to keep up. One of those early provocations has taken my breath away both times I’ve read it. Bear-riding warrior-general Zezili accepts her empress’s out-of-nowhere order to execute thousands of slaves held in camps around the country of Dorinah. First, though, Zezili repairs to her estate for dinner and sex with her husband, a slender kept man who begs his master for a book. Zezili refuses — she likes her men slim and without ideas.
Hurley’s always been bold in her treatment of sex and gender, sometimes even somewhat reckless. Refreshingly so. Hurley believes any kind of person can be any kind of person, so her matriarchies can be as cruel as our real world’s patriarchies. The shock of Zezili’s abusive relationship with the kept man trapped at her estate might knock some readers right out of the series, and I understand — life’s too short for roadtrips with people you detest. But for consistency’s sake, if you find Zezili too hateful a protagonist to invest in, you should probably shitcan all books about Thomas Jefferson, too.
Zezili’s just one of many point-of-view characters in a story that, ultimately, runs some 1,400 pages. Hurley crafts some familiar archetypes – the scullery orphan who might be a hero from prophecy; the reluctant leader who must unify a fractured country on the brink of war – but then she cheerily pretzels them all. The shades-of-gray outlander who guides a desperate, unlikely hero through the wilds? Here that’s Taigan, whose gender is in constant flux, shifting like the tides. One highlight of book one comes when a frustrated Taigan tests Lilia, the scullery orphan, to see if the whelp possess the latent magic powers all scullery orphans boast in epic fantasy. Taigan chucks Lilia off a cliff and waits, expectant, certain that imminent death will awaken Lilia’s gifts.
“If you find Zezili too hateful a protagonist to invest in, you should probably shitcan all books about Thomas Jefferson, too.”
As for what happens next, well, let’s just say that the life-saving manifestation of sorcerous ability at just the right moment is one of the many fantasy tropes that Hurley kills dead. The Mirror Empire is so vigorous, so novel, so richly imagined that both times I’ve read it I’ve thought, at about the halfway point, “I wish this book was a hundred pages longer.” That’s because Hurley, so dedicated to creating and destroying epic fantasy at the same time, proves too restless to indulge in one of the genre’s greatest pleasures. She only rarely in that first book allows her story and characters time to breathe, to be, to take in their world and their place in it. Especially in its second half, The Mirror Empire gushes along, climax following climax so quickly that it at times becomes a gory mush. It’s more work than it should be working out which of the horrifying events matters most and why. (Tip: Use the glossary anytime you’re the least bit uncertain who is who, no matter how cocky you are about sussing out context clues.)
But The Mirror Empire ultimately ends well, after a marvelous first half, and the second book, The Empire Ascendant, finds Hurley’s storytelling as assured as her worldbuilding. This time, the pacing is stronger, the climaxes more cathartic, the violence more impactful, the moral quandaries more prickling, the leaps from one character’s perspective to another more clearly motivated by the narrative — in book two I never wondered, at a chapter’s start, “Wait, why are we jumping to her, now?” One long, suspenseful stretch of story involves multiple jailbreaks and reversals among disparate characters on opposite ends of a continent, yet everything flows, the shocks and revelations each worth a gasp but then inevitable in hindsight. Especially strong is Hurley’s handling of an astrological event that upends everyone’s plans: a dark star rises, which means everything in a fantasy in which different sects of magician gain power based on what the heavens are up to. A story that somewhat fitfully gushed in The Mirror Empire now surges with clear purpose. (Wittily, that story involves much ado about a book that explains the basic workings of Raisa – and a crucial appendix!)
Hurley’s purpose is dark, of course, in a middle book that announces right there in the title that the bad guys are winning. That means that the final volume opens with the heroes scattered and uncertain, as you likely would be in their situation. One pacifistic culture, for example, has been invaded by its quite un-pacifistic mirror-selves from a dying world, opening the series to questions too unsettling for most epic fantasies: Aren’t the villainous hordes that one culture’s heroes must strike down the desperate heroes of their own culture?
My second time through those first 60 pages I stopped worrying about who was who and instead was caught up by the horror at this series’ heart. Hurley’s diverse, sometimes despicable protagonists fight to save themselves and their friends and families. Or they fight for revenge. Or they fight because, well, what else is there to do? Hurley makes clear that, even with all these lives on the line, the fight has occurred before, and that it will occur again, and that survival of the powerful incentives the abuse of the weak – who will, one day, when their star rises, rise up and put their own boots on the necks of the powerful.
And then, as the heavens dance, it will all happen again.
The great suspense of The Broken Heavens isn’t “Will the heroes survive?” Instead, it lies in questions readers might associate more with science-fiction rather than fantasy: “Can power be wielded justly? Can cycles of violence be stopped?”
I wondered about that all through this bracing final volume. And, having just road tripped through books one and two, really taking my time, I never once had to consult The Broken Heavens’ extensive glossary. Like a close-up magician showing you just how much fresh wonder can still be squeezed out of a deck of cards, Hurley can make you believe that epic fantasy is vital, mysterious, wild, and deeply connected to our own moral, social, and political concerns. And then, just when you’re caught up in her heady themes, she’ll have her characters teleport into an ancient, breathing temple or maybe dine on each other’s freshly killed hearts. She’s that kind of writer – you can trust her with your time and to show you new worlds, but never take your eyes off her hands.
The Broken Heavens
By Kameron Hurley
Angry Robot Books
Published January 14