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Book Review: Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley

Empire Ascendant: Worldbreaker Saga #2 (The Worldbreaker Saga) - Kameron Hurley

 Every two thousand years, parallel dimensions collide on the world called Raisa, bringing a tide of death and destruction to all worlds but one. Multiple worlds battle their dopplegangers for dominance, and those who survive must contend with friends and enemies newly imbued with violent powers.


Now the pacifist country of Dhai's only hope for survival lies in the hands of an illegitimate ruler and a scullery maid with a powerful – but unpredictable –magic. As their dopplegangers spread across the world like a disease, a former ally takes up her Empress’s sword again to unseat her, and two enslaved scholars begin a treacherous journey home with a long-lost secret that they hope is the key to the other worlds' undoing.


But when the enemy shares your own face, who can be trusted?


Reviewed from ARC provided by Angry Robot Books


First Disclosure: I am writing this hopped up on painkillers, with one finger, on my phone. I cannot make any guarantee that this will make any sense, or be completely readable. Blame the cat :)


Second Disclosure: I am unashamedly a Kameron Hurley fan-grrrl. There’s a multitude of reasons I find her an inspirational writer, not all of them because of her books - but I think I can be mostly objective.. Let's see!


So we’ve reached the second book, and If you’ve picked up Empire Ascendant, you most likely already know the “Hurley way” after reading Mirror Empire. Find a trope, subvert it, jump up and down on it, stick it with a sword, then offer it up in a story line that actually has rather familiar fantasy elements. An incredibly smart way to get people to read something way out of their comfort zone, and yet have them enjoy it! I probably wouldn't suggest The Worldbreaker Saga as somebody's first foray into fantasy, I think it'd have them running back to their regular pretty quickly. However, for those that are fantasy regulars, it's the next step in progressing the genre beyond the safety barriers. 


The next “Hurley way” is to rain blood down around your ears. There is a lot of blood, and many characters are bleeding. Or no longer bleeding. If you have issues with your favourite characters dying, step away! Then again, Hurley writes her characters in a way that it's possible to hold a modicum of disdain for all of them, so you might not be too attached at any rate! The characters are so many shades of grey on the spectrum.. They are scarily human! 


And, you know you’ve become pretty acclimatised to the grim nature of Hurley's work, when the thing that disturbs you the most is a dog licking up man spunk. You can dismember bodies, commit genocide.. Just another day! . Dog licking up semen: “OH MY GODS Hurley! You’ve gone TOO FAR!” 


Look, if you loved Mirror, you’ll almost certainly love Empire. If you didn't love Mirror, I can't help you, and I'm not sure why you're here unless you're a self masochist..



 So what's changed/different?

I noticed Empire Ascendant is actually much more confined in its movements, than Mirror Empire is.  There’s only some brief moments journeying around the world, and there's much less exploration of the elements - it’s occasionally feels like you are reading sealed off scenes between characters. It’s actually an interesting progression from Mirror, as it projects the feeling of ‘we’ve done the wandering, we know what we need of the terrain, now let's get on with the business!’


It’s also very focused on the one world, rather than switching between the two, which, in its way, has given Empire a  more intense sense of urgency. It’s almost impatient, which works so well with the exigency of the story! it in no way means that it cuts out the wonder of the world, it just doesn’t offer the regular fantasy travelogue.


I’ll be honest, I preferred Mirror’s heavier exploration! However, that's just because I love that sort of immersion. So, to me it's less a negative and more a reflection of personal preference - because the shift still absolutely works in this circumstance.


Hurley also continues to level up in prose, plotting and pacing skills in Empire. Not to say Mirror (or Hurley’s other works) is poor in these areas, but Empire is really really tight. There are less lulls, and there is never a dragging moment as it flows like a fast moving stream, broken up by momentous rapids. There is never a point where you stop and scratch your head in confusion about what just occurred in the plot; which did happen once or twice in Mirror.


The unique (un)gendered pronoun system feels less awkward, and generally everything that felt ‘experimental’ in Mirror, now feels completely natural in this world. It all slots together with better fluidity, as the slightly roughened edges have been sanded down nicely.


What Empire Ascendant does really well, is give an insight into the ‘baddies’, the doppelgangers invading the Dhai. And it really makes you ponder the thought ‘what would I do to save everyone I love?’. Would committing genocide be such a horrible thing to do, if it means saving all the people of your planet? It's a scary headspace to explore, those absolutes, the limits of the ‘what if?’s. It's something Hurley does so well, in all her works: forces you to think beyond the book!


There were a couple of occasions I did have to re-read a line or two - but I’m inclined to believe that it was due to the ARC formatting, rather than a fault in the writing. I’ll check that out once I’ve fully perused the published edition! Even if it is part of the pubbed copy, it happens so rarely, it's not a huge issue when you hold it up to the rest of the book.


If I was going to find anything that did make me hurrumph, it's the ending. I can't really say anything about it, for obvious reasons - but I will say there is ALOT happening in the last few chapters, that leaves you feeling a bit harried, and yet a kind of empty..





(hehehe one finger verdict is a bit shaky)



Bring on 2017 for the next installment! Can't believe I’m going to have hold on that long.. There may be bursting,  and a flowing of fluids..