Empire Ascendant is the second in Kameron Hurley’s ‘Worldbreaker’ series. In quick summary, it’s great. It’s a book which wants to ask complicated questions. It’s a book which requires engagement, and rewards investment. It’s a book rife with raw emotion, much of it in some way traumatic, and all very genuine. It’s a book with some excellent battles, and a refusal to look away from the consequences of those conflicts, both at the political and personal levels. There’s personal drama, there’s sprawling politics, there’s even some excellent battle scenes. Hurley has put together something with an incredible scope, and managed to make the narrative feel tight, focused, and pitch-perfect.
The setting is diverse, and that’s reflected in the environments presented to the reader. Hurley gives us frozen wastes, a lush semi-jungle populated by carnivorous plants, cities under siege, and an entire world, dying beneath a shattered star, amongst others. Each of these environs feels distinct from the others, a star in Hurley’s carefully crafted geographical firmament. At the same time, each locale feels lived in, and real – often horrifyingly so. There’s some excursions to new environments outside of the first book, and it’s always nice to see somewhere new – but n area where the prose shines is in making each of the places the reader is exposed to feel authentic.
It’s always felt to me like the core of this series is the characters, and here, again, Hurley is on very good form. The existing cast of characters from the first book was quite large, and we get a few new people to read over as the text goes on. But what characters they are. There’s a determination here to not only present characters as people, but to approach that personification in an unflinchingly honest fashion. Indeed, one of the themes of the text seems to be around the creation of monsters, both physical and mental. Individuals find themselves working on behalf of a nebulous greater good, doing things which appall them – in an effort to combat adversaries who are also working for their own ideals, and performing atrocities of their own. The characters are in a turbulent gyre, where their own good intentions lead inextricably toward horrors. At the same time however, they remain sympathetic – vulnerable, damaged, struggling people.
Speaking of damage, this is another place that the narrative performs strongly. We’ve seen characters perform atrocities. We’ve seen characters struggle with breaking the customs of their own society. Empire Ascendant portrays both of these well. But it’s not afraid to look at the consequences, at the mutability of identity, or at the ghosts that characters carry on their shoulders. The world of Empire Ascendant has rapidly become nasty, brutal and short – and many of the characters involved are trying to rapidly adjust to that, often with a great deal of difficulty. The kind of individual and social pressure that a character is under is something that the author portrays well – some characters are increasingly wrung out and look to be teetering on a psychological edge; others are forced to deal with more immediate changes of circumstance.
The takeaway here is that the characters in this book, like it’s predecessor, are disturbingly, wonderfully believable. Not two dimensional, but real men and women on a page, acting with the best of motives, having their society fall down around them. A great many of them aren’t especially likable, but can be empathised with, can be understood, can be invested in, because they feel like people, not characters.
There’s a lot going on in the interactions between characters as well. There’s the issue of goals versus means. The issue of what is justifiable. There’s a discussion to be had around slavery, and the way that individuals see themselves when they’re torn out of society. There’ssome truly marvellous moments of character epiphany, as an individual assesses where and who they are, and becomes something else. It’s impressive that none of this, or the many other points raised, feel heavy-handed. They slide by as part of the extended narrative, in character asides or setting descriptions, in the underlying assumptions of dialogue, and the occasional remark. There’s an impressive sense of broader culture here, of societies within which our protagonist find themselves. Alongside the individual portrayals of betrayal, loneliness, compassion and tiny acts of heroism, are societies which defines what those things are – and they leap off the page at the reader alongside the characters which they have shaped.
The plot kicks off pretty much from the close of the first book in the series. It’s not exactly incidental to the characters, but it feels like they drive it, rather than the other way around – and that’s a good thing. It feels like the twists and turns that get thrown out by the plot are growing organically out of character choice. The pacing is spot on – there’s instances of frenetic action, the careful tension of political discussion, the tingling excitement of discovery; the raw, focused horror of murder and the explosive disaster of battle. There’s also the opportunity to get some answers, as the book progresses – by the end, much like the characters, I was beginning to get a feel of the stakes of the game. But the author doesn’t pull any punches, and I think it’s reasonable to say that by the end of the text, with danger in every shadow (as well as right there in front of them), none of the characters is entirely safe. A lot changes over the course of Empire Ascendant, for the characters and cultures portrayed within it – and the impacts feel seismic, and very real.
Hurley has put together something very special. There are complex characters. There’s a believable, if broken world. There’s a plot which will absolutely knock your socks off, if you’re prepared to let it. But it’s also a book willing to explore more deeply, to challenge reader preconceptions and expectations, to ask the reader to invest themselves, and willing to repay that investment in a mixture of enlightenment and blood. That depth, and that narrative bravery, makes Empire Ascendant not just a very good fantasy novel, but a great one – and one very highly recommended.