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.
A Memory Called Empire is Arkady Martine’s debut novel and first the author’s Teixcalaan series. I am here to tell you this book is a phenomenal read! There are so many aspects of it that are enjoyable that I cannot wait to rant them all. Let’s go!
I want to start with the writing style. Martine seems to know exactly how much description to give a setting or scene to keep the reader informed and interested at the same time. No big info dumps, but as a reader I never felt as though the details were left out. It just always felt perfectly balanced, and that, in my opinion, is hardest to do in science fiction – particularly in space operas. I believe the reason for this is the fact that the author wants to tell the reader, “look! It’s our world but SO DIFFERENT! Let me count the ways…”, and I do not blame them. Martine does not fall into that trap, the author giving only what is needed and wanted and nothing more.
Another positive in the writing is style is the subject matter the author broaches. The narrative is full of prose that it feels really poetic. But, also, there is a lot of direct poetry. It plays a big part in the narrative, and not just on a surface-level. Poetry is a huge part of Texicalaanli culture, and Martine does not shy away from the subject. There is also a ton of etymology and linguistics. The way the author uses cultural shifts to write about writing, communication, and language on both macro- and micro-levels creates a pensive tone that is the undercurrent of the remaining story elements.
I really enjoyed the story itself, as well. Mahit is the MC, here, and the narrative surrounding her is full of strife. She is immersed in a new culture, and spends the book trying to navigate that while accomplishing her goals as a diplomat – to find out what happened to her predecessor and gather as much information about Teixcalaan as she can. The storyline is overflowing with drama as there is a murder mystery to go along with all of the political intriuge, not to mention all the personal conflict’s Mahit encounters, as well. The investigation of the death of the previous diplomat leads her to uncover secret plots and political and personal vendettas, back room deals and romantic trysts (and might even lead to one or two of her own). The reader experiences layer upon layer of suspense, a story full of intrigue.
Another aspect of this book that really made it for me was how easy it was to connect to it emotionally. Mahit’s journey is comprehensive, her thoughts, feelings, and experiences a journal for all to read. That connection is what takes it from a book with a great story to something more transcendent, an adventure turned odyssey.
Of course, I cannot leave this space without mentioning the world building. As I mentioned at the beginning, Martine does a superb job of making this a book-about-our-world-not-the-same-but-kind-of. There are a ton of references to current-day culture, events, and issues that also feel incredibly relevant to the time in the story and that do not seem out of place or forced at all. This is another aspect of the book that seems really well-balanced, and I am giving more kudos to the author on the writing
A Memory Called Empire is so good I am embarrassed it took me this long to read it. I have been raving lately about all of the great science fiction I have read this year, and this book is in the running for Best of the Year for me. No wonder it won the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel – a well-deserved accomplishment. I unconditionally recommend it, and I am excited to see what happens in the next installment.