First Contact With an Empire: Arkady Martine – A Desolation Called Peace

Arkady Martine had the hellish job of following her Hugo Award winning A Memory Called Empire with a book that was, somehow, supposed to keep up. To me, this second book set in the Teixcalaanli Empire didn’t quite live up to its predecessor but rather suffered from middle book syndrome. Nonetheless, I would still recommend it because although it fails to come up with much that’s new, it is still a very entertaining story told through fantastic characters.

A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE
by Arkady Martine

Published: Tor, 2021
eBook:
496 pages
Series:
Teixcalaan #2
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: To think—not language. To not think language.

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

Mahit Dzmare is back on Lsel station and people there are not happy with her. After the events of the first book, it was clear that the leaders of her home wouldn’t receiver her with open arms. For one, Mahit’s imago machine has been tampered with, leading to the tumultous events of the first book, and secondly, the secret of Lsel Station is now out as the Empire knows about imago technology and might want to use it for their own gain. So, needless to say, Mahit’s mission counts as failed. The question is, though, what they will do with her. Send her back to the Empire as an embassador? Unlikely. Have her disappear conveniently? Maybe. But thankfully, Three Seagrass and the alien fleet knocking on the Empire’s doors come to the rescue. Sort of.

I loved the introduction of some new viewpoint characters, especially Eight Antidote, the former Emperor’s 90% clone, currently an 11-year-old boy. His exploration of his city, the way he learns about the Empire, about politics, about how people work and how manipulative they can be, was just so much fun to read. Eight Antidote felt like a child but at the same time brought this immense wisdom with him. Most importantly, however, he has a good heart and quickly makes up his mind about what’s right and what’s wrong and everything in between. Through his eyes, we get to see what’s happening in the city of Teixcalaan and what’s up with Nineteen Adze.
But we also get to meet Nine Hibiscus, woh is commanding the Teixcalaanli Fleet currently fighting the aliens. Although I wouldn’t consider her a major character, her relationship with her most trusted friend Twenty Cicada carried most of the emotional impact of this book for me. Mahit and Three Seagrass, in the meantime, join up with the fleet in order to make contact with those aliens. If you ask yourself whether these two are truly the most qualified people in Teixcalaan to do that, you are right. But Arkady Martine explains that away pretty quickly. They soon figure out that, although it’s really nothing like human language and has… interesting effects on them, the aliens do communicate. As soon as they’ve worked out a way to communicate back (at least they think that’s what they’re doing), they go on a mission to see if they can bring peace to the Empire without having to engage in huge battles and losing thousands of Teixcalaanli lives.

“She hadn’t been doing nothing. She’d been trying to recover her balance, her sense of herself, the shape of a life—any life—that could encompass both Lsel Station and Teixcalaan, two Yskandrs and one of her and whoever they were going to be.”

Now here’s the thing. I had certain expectations for this book and I know that is completely unfair and the author must have felt a ton of pressure anyway. I understand that and I acknowledge it. But that doesn’t change that I had those expectations and many of them were left unfulfilled. You see, they weren’t even crazy expectations. What I wanted the most was deeper world building. I wanted to learn more about all those small aspects of Teixcalaan that we only got to see a little in the first book. It was fine to just get snippets of information in Memory because that book had its own plot and didn’t need to go off on a tangent about the Sunlit, for example. But this second book, with a much less straightforward plot, with multiple POVs and settings, was the perfect chance to tell us more about that.
We learn very, very little new stuff about the Teixcalaanli Empire in this book, and most of it has to do with how the military operates. I found that interesting, don’t get me wrong, especially the part about the Shards (no spoilers!). So there are new ideas here that fit well into this galactic empire but, compared to the first book, there’s not much to dsicover. The feeling of that sprawling, well thought-out world Martine gave us in the first promised more to come and gave the impression that the author knows much more about that world and just didn’t tell us yet. Well, she’s still not telling us I guess. Not everyone needs to be Tolkien and actually have an answer to every single world-building question a reader could have. But in a 500 page book, I would expect a bit more than just one science-fictional idea (and one that isn’t new, at that). That’s not too much to ask, is it?

But the Teixcalaan novels aren’t really about the sci-fi technology or the aliens. They are about culture and identity, about belonging somewhere and maybe wanting to belong somewhere else. And in that aspect, Arkady Martine excels yet again! Mahit Dzmare is still utterly in love with the culture that’s trying to suppress and even erase her own. She knows that’s not quite right but she can’t help herself. And her relationship with Three Seagrass doesn’t make things easier. The dynamic between these two has changed considerably since the first book. Where they used to be embassador and cultural liaison – a pair with a clear hierarchy and power structure – they are now more than that. Things got personal but that also means they are more complicated. Does Three Seagrass still think of Mahit as a barbarian? Even if she thinks this lovingly (“my barbarian”), can such a relationship really ever work out? Shouldn’t both people involved feel that the other is their equal? It’s questions like this that the book tackles and handles really well. Without giving any straight answers – because there aren’t any – Martine makes you think and ponder for yourself.

But in this book, another culture (or even species) enters the floor. And although these aliens aren’t super original either, they pose an interesting question for Mahit and the Teixcalaanli Empire. Because we know what the Empire does – it conquers and takes and grows. And, as is the case with Mahit herself, it makes its citizens love it for that. But what if you can’t even communicate with the beings you are fighting? Seeing them as animals or lesser beings is easy when you don’t share a language, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t living beings who deserve respect.

The weakest part of this was the plot. Spread out between multiple POVs, nothing much really happens. Because Arkady Martine is an amazing writer, I enjoyed the book and was never bored, but looking back at it, I can’t say it brought the story that much forward. This is very much a middle book that advances a handful of aspects but leaves us mostly where we started. And if it weren’t so damn well written I would have rated it much lower but the author already made me care fo these characters in the first book and I still care about them now. So although I think it isn’t anywhere as good or original as A Memory Called Empire, I am looking froward to the next book in the series and will continue to recommend it to everyone who likes science fiction that makes you think.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good

Arkady Martine – A Memory Called Empire

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!