A Wind from the Wilderness by Suzannah Rowntree – SPFBO #6 Finals Review

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Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley

Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley
Book Name: Empire Ascendant
Author: Kameron Hurley
Publisher(s): Angry Robot
Formatt: Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy / Dark Fantasy
Release Date: October 6, 2015 (US) October 1, 2015 (UK)

Last year, in my review of Kameron Hurley’s THE MIRROR EMPIRE, I called that book different, difficult, wildly inventive, risky, and provocative. EMPIRE ASCENDANT levels up on all counts. In classic book two fashion, EMPIRE ASCENDANT introduces new threads, existing threads are twisted, earlier actions have consequences, and the bad guys are on the march. It’s all straight out of the Empire Strikes Back playbook. But whereas that movie ended with a bit of hope, with Luke’s arm around Leia’s shoulders, awaiting the results of an effort to rescue Han. EMPIRE ASCENDANT doesn’t end in a similar manner. This book is dark, brutal, and heartbreaking—grimdark pushed an extreme. The book instead reminded me of Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel: “It’s like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.” Which is all to say that Kameron has continued to push the envelope of epic and grimdark fantasy.

Every two thousand years, a dark star rises. Nations die, and worlds break in its shadow. When gateways between the worlds open, the struggle for survival begins. An Empress from another world has conquered one warrior nation and now her army is rolling over a pacifist nation. Every person she kills means another of hers will survive. And her victory seems inevitable. Her people will have a sanctuary, even if they must pay a terrible cost. All that stands in her way is one of her generals gone rogue after she has nothing left to lose, an illegitimate ruler whose fragile position is undermined by a traitorous cabal, a former maid with a gift for strategy and only a novice’s understanding of dangerous magic, and two slaves who might have just uncovered the secret to this cataclysm.

A recurring theme in this book revolves around monsters—sometimes literal, most of the time metaphorical. After all, if your world was ending, how far would you go to protect yourself and those you love? What would you justify to survive? When the rules fall away, is it possible to fight monsters without becoming one? Hurley’s characters commit genocide, betray their people, raze villages, poison, kill, enslave, torture, and maim. While THE MIRROR EMPIRE featured incredible worldbuilding, for me, EMPIRE ASCENDANT was all about the characters. There is a huge cast in this series, but Hurley gives them all strong motivations and drives. She also makes them suffer from terrible conflicts. And when I say suffer, I mean suffer: physical injuries, mental trauma, ghosts of murders past. This book is dark. Although I could find a bit of sympathy for every character, there aren’t any good guys left by the time this book ends. Like I said, no Luke and Leia hugging here.

But as often as I had to close the book (or put my ereader to sleep) to recover from one of those bleak moments, the reason they hit hard was because of Hurley’s pacing. Battles, fights, and chases move quickly, followed by a respite during moments of political discussion, new revelations, and mourning the death resulting from those action scenes. But fast or slow, there is a tension there because nearly every character is risking much and stands to lose much. I was constantly on edge as the story moved forward. And because I could never breathe easy, dark surprises hit like gut punches. I can only applaud Hurley’s skill for provoking it, as rough as this read can be at times.

I feel like I’m doing a terrible job praising this book. Yes, it’s dark, and yes, it can be a difficult, layered, complex read (call it graduate-level fantasy). But it’s so unlike a lot of epic fantasy out there. Heck, it’s unlike a lot of grimdark out there too. I mean, how many grimdark novels do you know deal with issues of gender fluidity and consent? For some readers, this review may add up to a catalog of reasons not to read this series. And I realize that many readers might bounce off this book. But they would be missing out on some of the most ambitious, original fantasy I’ve read in a long time.


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