Empire Ascendant is a brutal read, which is somewhat to be expected from Kameron Hurley in general, and certainly to be expected in the follow-up to The Mirror Empire. The world of The Worldbreaker Saga is a harsh one, and this second book in the series turns the grimdark up to eleven.
Unfortunately, I’m just not loving this series the way I did Hurley’s God’s War trilogy. I liked The Mirror Empire well enough, but it took me about a third of Empire Ascendant to get my bearings and figure out what was going on. In addition to the increased blood and higher body count, there are several new POV characters who I had a hard time placing in the narrative, which was confusing. Additionally, though it’s been less than a year since I read the first book, it turns out that it wasn’t actually all that memorable.
Except for Zezili, a character I adored in the first book but whose page time in Empire Ascendant is greatly reduced, I found myself barely recognizing most of the characters until partway through the novel. I did enjoy Anavha’s parts, but his story line seemed to move at a painfully slow pace. Ahkio spends most of the book being ineffectual, as does Lilia. The invading empress from the other world is somewhat humanized, but we don’t see much of her except near the beginning and end of the book. For basically all of the characters, everything just goes from bad to worse to worst for some five hundred pages, and by the end of the book I found myself just unable to engage with that level of darkness any longer.
The thing is, this isn’t a technically bad book. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s a technically brilliant book that I just don’t know if I’m capable of appreciating right now, which is sad because it’s a book that I’ve been eagerly anticipating for months. There’s still a lot going on in this series that I think is fascinating, and I have no doubt that I’ll go on to read the third book in the series when it comes out as well.
I think, though, that the reality is that this is not a series for the faint of heart. The role reversal and the interrogation of gender and the implicit (so implicit they actually become explicit) criticisms of genre mainstays are well worth checking out, but I think that it’s the very subversiveness of this series that makes it such difficult reading. Empire Ascendant isn’t a book that can be read lightly. It demands (and deserves) all of the reader’s attention, but it’s, frankly, so concerned (and rather self-consciously so) with subverting tropes and challenging expectations that it becomes weighed down with it’s own seriousness and self-importance.
In the end, I want to love everything about this series as much as I loved Zezili in the first book or as much as I loved all of the God’s War books, but I think I’m going to have to settle for only being able to objectively know the value of them and recognize the excellence of Kameron Hurley’s craft–which has certainly improved since her God’s War days. Empire Ascendant shows Hurley’s growth as a writer, but I feel like it also shows a notable lack of joy or humor when compared to her earlier work–which translates directly to me finding this new series increasingly unenjoyable.