I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up if trusted people on the interwebz hadn’t raved about it so much. As I don’t read much short fiction, I had never heard of Martine before, but I am all the more impressed with this debut novel of hers. It’s already a contender for my Hugo nominations for next year.
A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE
by Arkady Martine
Published by: Tor, 2019
Ebook: 462 pages
Series: Teixcalaan #1
My rating: 8/10
First line: In Teixcalaan, these things are ceaseless: star-charts and disembarkments.
Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident–or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.
Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion–all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret–one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life–or rescue it from annihilation.
This was a dense book and even at 462 pages, there isn’t anything in it that I’d call filler material. The story begins when Mahit Dzmare arrives at the capital of the Texcalaanli Empire where she is to take over from the previous – now deceased – ambassador Yskandr Aghavn. But she’s not alone, not really, because her people on Lsel Station have developed a technology that preserves memories and lets you implant them into people. So essentially, Mahit is carrying a copy of Yskandr (outdated by 15 years, but still) in her mind when she arrives for her new job.
She is given a cultural liaison to help her navigate this place that is vastly different from her home. I immediately adored this liaison, Three Seagrass. Although the Teixcalaanli people aren’t known for emotional outbursts, Three Seagrass was a wonderfully bubbly, eternally optimistic kind of character who was impossible to dislike. She takes her job seriously and truly wants to help Mahit navigate the imperial court. Oh yes, and there’s also the small matter that Yskandr seems to have been murdered…
What starts as a sort of murder mystery in space soon grows into something much bigger. Not only is Teixcalaan a fantastically interesting culture to discover and learn about, but Mahit’s own culture is just as intriguing. Over the course of the novel, we get to see more of both worlds, and I was there for all of it. I honestly wouldn’t even have needed a plot because finding out how Lsel’s imago machines work would have been enough to keep me interested. Add to that a brilliant cast of characters, court intrigue, and that murder mystery, and you’ve got a great novel right there.
As in any good story, things don’t go smoothly for our protagonist. Not only are there several attempts on her life, but her Yskandr imago isn’t working as it should, leaving her without the help she so depended on. Then there are players in this game of imperial thrones who all have their own plans, none of which Mahit understands at first. She doesn’t know whom to trust and she desperately wants a friend to confide in. And then there’s the fact that she is considered a Barbarian, not part of the Teixcalaanli Empire, and essentially an outsider. For someone who just wants to belong somewhere, that is an added psychological weight to what is already a strained situation.
I won’t tell you anything about the plot, only that it is well put together, with things falling into place and making sense by the end. Mahit Dzmare, Three Seagrass, and Twelve Azaelia were excellent characters with great interactions, but even the side characters who appear less frequently felt like real, fleshed-out people. So when somebody turns out to be a traitor, or when a character dies, it is meaningful and never just a plot device. Even the Emperor didn’t feel like your regular head of state who only thinks of annexing more and more places in the universe. He has layers just like everyone else. To get characters this well done in a debut novel is really impressive, so I’m all the more curious to see where Martine takes the story in the sequel.
This book also deals with the idea of Empire itself, of a power so great that it eats up everything else, a culture that absorbs (and possibly destroys) other cultures. Mahit may be from Lsel Station and she may love her home and want to preserve it the way it is, but she is by no means immune to the appeal of belonging to something as great as Teixcalaan. I loved how this story didn’t simplify things into Bad Empire vs. Small Independent Culture – Mahit’s culture isn’t automatically “the good guy” just as Teixcalaan isn’t purely bad. The book doesn’t take sides, it simply shows us this world the way it is and lets us draw our own subjective conclusions.
Although it took me a long time to finish this book, there wasn’t a single page that bored me or took me out of the reading flow. But it is a book that demands to be read slowly, simply because it packs so much information – about the characters, the plot, the world, the technology – onto every page. In addition to amazing characters, Arkady Martine also managed that without info-dumping. The world simply becomes clearer and clearer the more you read, and by the end, I felt that I had a true sense of what it’s like to live there. That said, there is way more to discover in Teixcalaan and I hope we get the next book very soon. And if Arkady Martine decides to write something completely different, I’ll be picking that up too. Because boy, am I impressed!
MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!