Breath-taking in its scope, Empire Ascendant’s cast is so big, you have to read it more than once to appreciate its amazing complexity. The violence is lyrical and Hurley’s prose is gorgeous, even when it’s dripping with blood. Alternate universes have never had so much creativity and gory vivacity. I felt like Mirror Empire was setup for an even wider canvas, paid off in Empire. Every leap takes you into a strange world that never alienates, but instead, draws you in like a spell that helps you to empathize, even with characters that, on the surface, would be repulsive. As Taigan says, “Heroes are honest cowards who fight though they fear it.”
Hurley is such a good writer that every scene feels disturbingly organic and visually palpable:
“The Aaldian ship was a living thing, like a Saiduan fortress. Luna had thought that was impossible. No Saiduan or Dai knew how to ensoul a hold anymore… The surface of the ship was spongy and slightly sticky, like undercooked bread.”
“Outside, the contaminated remnants of the dead star rained death and fired over the northern parts of the world… Six months, a year, and the rest of the globe would be a fiery wasteland.”
But as powerful as the worldbuilding is, it’s the characters that drive the empires as much as the ascendant Oma, the DMZ of alternate traversal becoming thinned enough for them to cross. The catch is that a character’s alternate version of themselves has to die for the other to make the journey. The empress of Tai Mora, Kirana, is fascinating and complex, forced to make horrific choices in order to save her people. I also really love the way Lilia evolves in Empire:
“‘I think they feared you more than whatever was going to come out of that mirror.’
Lilia did not say that desperation and madness were sisters, that one often led to the other. She just nodded, and called to the people on the other side of the parajista barrier. ‘I am Lilia Sona! I’ve come back from the walls of the harbor with a message for the Kai!’”
There’s a glossary at the end that is very helpful for identifying characters and places (I wish the Kindle didn’t require me to sweep all the way back to check and there was a way for it to just pop up whenever I hovered over a name). This is a book that engages you and feels as diverse as real history with a full cast of characters and even the secondary personalities have quirks and desires of their own.
The third book is a full year away so I’m glad I’ll get another chance to dive into the two books and explore the universes again before its arrival. Also, I love Hurley’s essays and can’t wait for The Geek Feminist Revolution to hold me over until. Still, I’m haunted by that last scene with Kirana where we see her vulnerable and she awaits what will surely be a glorious, and brutal, climax.