Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley
Published: Angry Robot Books, 2015
Series: Book 2 of the Worldbreaker Saga
Beware of spoilers for book 1 of the Worldbreaker Saga, The Mirror Empire!
“Loyalties are tested when worlds collide… Every two thousand years, the dark star Oma appears in the sky, bringing with it a tide of death and destruction. And those who survive must contend with friends and enemies newly imbued with violent 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 and a scullery maid with a powerful - but unpredictable - magic. As the foreign Empire spreads across the world like a disease, one of their former allies takes up her Empress's sword again to unseat them, and two enslaved scholars begin a treacherous journey home with a long-lost secret that they hope is the key to the Empire's undoing. But when the enemy shares your own face, who can be trusted?” ~WWEnd.com
Since Empire Ascendant came out October 6th, I’m bumping this review to the top of my queue! I received this novel as an advanced review copy, as a promotional gift for purchasing a physical copy of the first novel, The Mirror Empire. Also, as a note, this is the kind of series where you really do need to read the books in order, so new readers should grab The Mirror Empire first.
The Worldbreaker Saga is set in a very complicated and unusual world, and Empire Ascendant expands on the understanding I had gathered from the first book in the series. This is not a series that handholds through world-building explanations, and most of the viewpoint characters are struggling to make sense of what’s happening to their world alongside the reader. After the second book, I feel like I have a clearer idea of the magic system and how the satellites move through the parallel worlds, as well as a better grasp of the various cultures and their broad goals. The different cultural ideas of gender are still present, and they even seem to take slightly more prominence in the story. At this point, I find the five-gendered Dhai system the most interesting, with its self-assigned gender roles that are decoupled from biological determinism. I feel like there’s still plenty about the worlds and their inhabitants that I don’t know, but I suppose that should be true of any complex imagined multiverse.
As expected for the second act of a three act story, the situation becomes even grimmer for each of the characters, as they are faced with challenges that may well be insurmountable. I felt like nearly everyone was injured or permanently maimed in some way through the course of the story, and it is clear that no character is immune from being violently killed. I appreciated that the injuries the characters take are actually debilitating and ugly, rather than the usual superficial hero’s scars. The characters have to find the strength to endure, despite the physical and psychological damage they experience. Even if they succeed in their goals, there’s no guarantee of a happy ending waiting for them. The tension is rising, and I dread seeing which characters will fall in the last third of the series.
While there was certainly plenty of action and plot progression in Empire Ascendant, the many viewpoint characters’ individual stories were mostly divergent. Since this is planned as a trilogy, I have every confidence that their stories will converge in exciting ways in the final volume. I am enjoying how difficult it is to guess how the story will end, since there is no clear struggle between good and evil. Instead, all of the factions are simply doing what they can to protect what they love, regardless of the cost to themselves and others. For instance, the invading Tai Mora have committed great atrocities, but it is in the effort to escape their own dying world and protect their loved ones. I don’t want them to win, but it’s easy to see how their leaders felt forced into the actions they’ve taken.
With this muddy moral landscape, I’ve been most interested by the viewpoint characters who avoid acting with deliberate cruelty. I enjoyed Roh’s innocence in The Mirror Empire, and here he grows through suffering. The abusive Zezili’s meek husband Anavha doesn’t play a large role, but his chapters were some of my favorite. Luna, a ‘ataisa’ Dhai slave in Saiduan (though I think ze’s male-passive in Dhai), gives a different sort of perspective on the world. In more ruthless protagonists, Lilia and Ahkio also have very intense stories, as they both try, in their own ways, to protect Dhai from invasion. I can’t wait to see how all of the conflicts conclude in the final volume, and what is left of the primary world when they do.
My Rating: 4/5
Empire Ascendant is what I was hoping for in a sequel to The Mirror Empire, a novel that expands on the unusual setting and drives up the tension in the conflict between parallel worlds. The handful of viewpoint characters live in a very dangerous multiverse, and any of them could be maimed or killed at any time. There are no heroes or villains, only people who are trying desperately to protect their own, and who have different limits on what they’re willing to do to achieve their goals. By the end of this book, there are still a number of separate character stories ongoing, so it will be interesting to see how these are going to be tied together. It’s going to be a long wait for the conclusion, The Broken Heavens, which is due to come out in fall 2017!