Title: A Memory Called Empire
Author: Arkady Martine
Blurb: 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.
When I pre-ordered this book a couple months ago, I had it in my head that this was going to be an extremely serious speculative sci-fi novel about an intergalactic empire on the cusp of revolution. And while it was certainly a novel about an intergalactic empire on the cusp of revolution, I’m happy to report that it wasn’t nearly as serious as I anticipated. And that made it all the better.
Right out of the gate, the author brings her biggest strength to the forefront of the story—her world-building skills. The protagonist, Mahit, is forced to leave behind her regular life living on a mining station and become her station’s ambassador to the heart of the massive and aggressively expansionist Teixcalaanli Empire. So from the outset, the reader is dealt an interesting contrast: the simple work-oriented stationer culture versus the grandiose and convoluted literature-oriented Teixcalaanli culture, the latter of which Mahit has spent most of her life trying to grasp through academic study.
Mahit, consequently, has a “fish out of water” storyline, in which she tries her hardest to fit in as a “barbarian” (or so the Teixcalaanli call her) in a world where high culture is viewed as the end all be all. And personally, I think Mahit’s viewpoint is the perfect lens through which to tell this sort of political intrigue story, as we get to view the empire from the point of view of someone who has one foot inside it and foot outside it. Through Mahit, we see the good and the bad, the sensible and the outrageous, and the many other competing cultural aspects of Teixcalaanli society.
Based only on the thoughtfulness that went into the world-building, I would give this book four stars. But there’s more!
The actual plot of the book is fairly strong, with Mahit playing an influential role in the empire’s politics during a time of rising political unrest. The book has generous helpings of action, drama, humor, and political intrigue, all wrapped up in a complex but believable story about the twilight of a emperor’s long and peaceful reign, and the ramifications that naturally emerge from an approaching shift of power.
The pacing of the book was quite fast, the climax explosive, and the conclusion both stunning and fitting when you consider the plot as a whole. I wasn’t bored at any point during this book, as even the slowest moments were saturated with interesting revelations or the introduction of new mysteries to solve.
In terms of characterization, I think the author did a great job with the supporting cast, particularly Mahit’s “sidekicks,” Three Seagrass and Twelve Azalea, who, while both being competent actors that helped drive the plot forward, provided a great deal of necessary comedic relief that kept the book from falling too far toward a “dark and despairing” tone.
Mahit herself was a bit more a mixed bag for me—she spent a little too much time allowing things to happen to her before finally finding her agency, for my taste. But in the end, she too came through as an intelligent and daring character with believable strengths and flaws. And I certainly wouldn’t mind reading another book about her, especially after her development throughout this book.
If there’s one noticeable issue with the book, it’s the number of minor plot threads left hanging or under-explored. Now, while I understand that the author intends to write more books in this universe, I feel that she went a little too far in introducing some of these subplot ideas that weren’t completely relevant to the main plot, because they extended the “run time” of the book without having any payoff at the end.
I would’ve preferred it if those unfinished subplots had been dialed back a bit, mentioned only in passing, and then reintroduced and fully explored in the sequels. Because a lot of those subplot threads were quite intriguing, but this book simply didn’t have the space to accommodate them properly.
Overall, I found A Memory Called Empire to be a refreshing take on the intergalactic empire story, with a solid cast, an exciting plot, and extremely memorable world-building.