The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
There are many worlds. The world of Raitin and its siblings glow in the light of four mystical satellites. "Jistas," magic-users with powers tied to one of these satellites and its associated specialties, wax and wane in power according to which satellite is ascendant. Those sensitive to Oma, the dark satellite, among other powers, may open gates between worlds. Previous risings of Oma have brought great migrations, wars of invasion, overthrow of empires, and even geologic change. But Oma has not been seen in two thousand years, and much has been forgotten. Oma now rises. There are many worlds, and some worlds are not content with just their own.
Probably the most noteworthy aspect of the book is its gender complexity. Of the three cultures we see, the Dhai have five self-selected genders (passive/assertive male and female, as well as "ungendered"), the Saiduin have three assigned (male, female, and other called ataisa), and the Daidun have a "typical" male/female split, but inverted into a repressive matriarchy. It is a fascinating, and challenging, task to recalibrate all of one's gender assumptions.
But if I have one "criticism" of the gender politics, it's that the fluidity of sexuality seems overdone. With such a variety of sexualities even in the "simple" and often rigid male/female binary of the real world, naturally there would be even more in a world with a more expansive and spectral gender dynamic. Yet it seems less like there is a "spectrum" than "every single character is sexually attracted to every other gender." Perhaps I'm just narrow-minded, but I can't help but feel that a lot of people would still have distinct preferences in who they sleep with. But that may just be my own thing; I get my back up sometimes when a certain type starts with the "I don't like labels, maaaaaaaaan. Sexuality is fluuuuuuuuuuuuuuid!", not because it isn't true, but because it's usually straight guys doing gay porn, or a certain kind of person who wants to "enjoy" sexuality without any of the potentially uncomfortable stigmas or prejudices a label can come with.
The Mirror Empire is challenging in other ways. Hurley isn't one for infodumps. One is flung directly into the deep end and the expansive worldbuilding must be pieced together by the reader. With so many narrators, so many characters, and so many names, even with a glossary in the back, it can be challenging to keep everyone straight, especially at first. The correlation between "character we like" and "characters who aren't annoying, assholes, or genocidal" is not the strongest, either, which some don't care for. I don't really find it a problem, because I love an interesting asshole (the genocidal general of a matriarchal police state is one of my favs), and as noted before, there are a lot of characters, so no one's assholishness brings the whole thing down. It is, though, something not all readers might enjoy.
None of this is a criticism in a "don't read this" way. The Mirror Empire is an excellent book, a thrilling portrait of a distinctly alien world on the edge of catastrophe. The worldbuilding is amazing. (Instead of horses, they ride huge dogs and bears!) With the promise of more worlds, even stranger worlds, coming into play, and various cliffhanger endings, I look forward to the future books (it's a "saga," so who knows how many that could be) with gleeful anticipation. It simply is not an "easy" read.
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
Once, Bulikov was the most powerful city in the world, seat of the very gods themselves. Now a shadow of its former self after the death of those gods, occupied by its former subjects and forced by them to forget all that they once were, it seethes with conspiracy and discontent. The death of a foreign scholar brings "Shara Thivani," one of Saypur's most accomplished secret agents, to the city, and what she finds might change the fate of two continents.
Whereas The Mirror Empire plays with gender, City of Stairs does so with colonialism. The oppressor becomes the oppressed. Religion has not been disproven or displaced; it has been killed. The Divine was real, and was really shot. It's a fascinating look at how two wrongs don't make a right, how repression can bring no real peace, and how important history is.
I think my favorite aspect of the book is Thivani, who is not your typical spy protagonist. She's a tiny, South Asian-ish woman with glasses. James Bond she ain't, and it's refreshing. Of course, her "secretary" Sigurd fills the "he-man badass" role, but he's still the sidekick.
My only criticism of the novel has to do with a closeted gay character. Not that they are closeted (there are good reasons for that in-universe), but because, as Thivani and Sigurd are the only ones whose heads we actually get into, we don't really get "their" story, and they become more a prop for the plot, in my view, than an actual person. They are written with sympathy, but at a remove, and it irritated me profoundly.
I still highly enjoyed and recommend City of Stairs. I would only caution that, though faintly steampunk in aesthetic, it's not really a "steampunk"
novel. As I don't particularly care for the steampunk subgenre, this was
just fine with me, but if you are an aficionado of that subgenre, don't expect it to conform exactly.
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
The sequel to last year's much-lauded and multiple-award-winning Ancillary Justice, sees Breq, the only remaining remnant of a starship's AI, given command of her own ship. Her assignment is to maintain the security of the Athoek system as the civil war between factions of the distributed consciousness that is Radchaai ruler Anaander Mianaai enters a new, deadly phase. She must battle the agents of the "other" side of Anaander Mianaai, begin to unravel the mystery of the Ghost Gate, integrate with her new crew, deal with a potential diplomatic incident with an alien species, and attempt to right some of the injustices of the Radch system in Athoek.
Sword is a very different, in some ways, book to Justice. Justice felt bracing and strange with its gender ambiguities and multiple-first-person perspective, while also maintaining a fairly familiar revenge narrative. Of course, now know to expect the ambiguity and the perspective, so it does not feel so novel, and the revenge narrative has given way to something more cloudy.
There is a closer look at the systems and effects of colonialism. It sets up a mystery that will presumably be resolved in the next book. But after a lot of thought, what I think Sword is really about what it means and how it feels to be an outsider, from oneself and from one's society. Breq is not really human, and serves a society she doesn't believe in or truly fit in. Young Lieutenant Taiwaarat undergoes a horrible violation that leaves her entire identity changed. The Velskaayan workers, a people stubbornly different and apart from Radch society and inhabit the very bottom of Atheok society, are exploited and repressed. A former political agitator is forced to live in an ambiguous limbo without truly belonging to any group. Meanwhile, the "insiders" stand on the backs of their "lessers," allowing them to abuse their power without any seeming consequence. Of course, not all of the "insiders" are monsters, nor are all the "outsiders" saints, but it is an interesting look at how different a society can look depending on where one stands.
Though not as immediately gripping as Ancillary Justice, less audacious-seeming now that the bracing conceits have been fully expected and accepted by the reader, and not as clearly structured, by the end I came to quite enjoy Ancillary Sword. I look forward with great anticipation to the next book in 2015.