Review: Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley

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Having read Empire Ascendant,  the second book in the Worldbreaker Saga, I’m attempting to understand how I’ve managed to become even a little invested in this series. I couldn’t sum up what happens in Empire Ascendant if I tried, but here’s my best shot.

The Tai Mora continue to invade one of the worlds that lies parallel to theirs in order to escape the devastation raining down on their world due to the rising of the satellite Oma. The Tai Mora increase their slaughter of the Dhai (their parallel counterpart in this parallel world) in order to complete their invasion. Every single country in this world continues to engage in brutal warfare against the Tai Mora and each other. Lilia, Akhio, Zezili, Taigan, Maralah, and all the other characters introduced in the first book are present and accounted for (plus some new ones), and they all futilely attempt to wrest or salvage whatever victory they can out of disaster, and they all fail miserably in one way or another.

Everything else is details.

People like to cite George R. R. Martin as a brutal writer when it comes to killing off characters portraying gruesome violence in A Song of Ice and Fire. Those people have not read Kameron Hurley. She is ruthless. I lost count of how many bodies and body parts were stabbed, ripped open, broken, shattered, gouged, sliced off, burned, and hacked to pieces. (The only thing missing from these books was rape, which I understood to be a deliberate choice on Kameron Hurley’s behalf, and one I appreciated.) Strangely enough, I rarely felt like all this violence was especially gratuitous, possibly because every single character experienced and perpetrated one form of violence or another. Violence wasn’t written in for some characters and not others, and it wasn’t written to “make a point” or provide characterization; instead the threat and reality of violence exists as common backdrop of each inhabitant in these parallel universes.

Two books in, I still don’t actually care about any of the characters for three reasons:

  1. I kept tripping over all the similar-looking names of the multitude of primary and secondary characters.
  2. Because of the similar-sounding names and general lack of characterization on behalf of the secondary characters, I had a hard time keeping track of which people belonged to which temple or were allied with which families or temples or individuals. (This was an especially big issue with the Dhai and Tai Mora, the latter of whom can’t cross over unless their Dhai counterpart is killed, except I couldn’t remember for the life of me who the Dhai counterparts were and whether they were still alive or not.)
  3. All the characters felt alike in their inevitable failure to achieve anything resembling their goals or desires. They’re all equally bitter, beaten, and in positions of relative powerlessness. And, as previously mentioned almost all of them both participate in and are subject to the brutal killing and maiming that characterizes the much of these books.

Yet I was interested enough in the book to finish it, and I’m trying to figure out why that is. There’s something resembling a plot, but there so many different agents acting on behalf or against several parties of multiple peoples that it’s impossible for me to even guess what Kameron Hurley was leading up to. Yet I couldn’t put the book down—I raced through it until I got to the end. It almost didn’t matter that the names of characters and countries blurred together, that I constantly forgot which satellite bestowed which kind of magic, and even which characters were which kind of magic-users.

Here are some of my theories for why I was interested, and why I want to know how it’s going to end in the 3rd book:

  1. Academic curiosity in what Kameron Hurley is doing as a writer. Starting with The Mirror Empire and continuing on with Empire Ascendant, she has taken multiple nations, cultures, peoples, and systematically destroyed them. At this point, everything in sight appears to be that way. I have zero clue what direction the third book will go in, nor can I even begin to guess what kind of ending this trilogy is going to have.
  2. I know that Kameron Hurley doesn’t pull any punches. I know she won’t hold back on breaking her worlds and her characters as much as they can be broken (and in Empire Ascendant she does exactly that, dear god she does). Which means I want to see just how much more out-of-the-box the third book is going to go.

I admire what Kameron Hurley has done with these books. She writes bold stories which demonstrate her dedication to writing military fantasy with realistic consequences that arise out of systematic violence and the costs of engaging in warfare to achieve one’s goals, no matter the incipient reason. I still couldn’t tell you much of what actually happened in this book, and I’m already annoyed at the knowledge that I’m going to have forgotten every single name and country and alliance once again by the time the third book comes out. But when it does come out, I’ll want to know how it ends. And I’m damned if I know just how Kameron Hurley managed that.

For a somewhat similar reaction to mine, check out Liz Bourke’s review.

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