A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire was another one of those great sci-fi books that I never would have discovered without Twitter buzzing about it before one of those annual awards gatherings (I think it was the Hugos?) At first, I wasn't sure I was interested. I didn't really know much, other than everyone was talking about it, from when the ARCs went out, past publication and into awards season, but what I heard was vague. And then, like I do, I came late to the party.
Mahit has always dreamed of living in the heart of the Teixcalaan Empire, studying to be the ambassador from her tiny satellite (literally) community. When the Empire calls for a new ambassador, her fantasy seems to be coming true. Following her people’s tradition, she has an out-of-date digital copy of the old ambassador, Yskandr, implanted into her brain and sets off for her new post, having no idea that her predecessor is dead. When Yskandr’s digital memories go haywire, things only get more dicey. What unfolds after is just as much political intrigue, manipulation and mystery as you’d expect from an ornate, somewhat hedonistic, sprawling empire with ancient, twisting cultural roots.
Mahit and Three Seagrass!
Mahit enters the political world of the City, the Teixcalaan capital, with no guidance, despite expecting to rely on the memories of her predecessor. She flounders for a while, not quite sure who to trust. On one side, she has Nineteen Adze a General who answers directly to the Emperor, and on the other, she has her assistant, Three Seagrass and her spy-friend, Twelve Azalea.
Three Seagrass is a peppy, smart, sarcastic young woman, with aspirations for a greater position, but she also has heart. She is one of the best side-kicks I’ve encountered in fiction in a while. Seagrass and Mahit compliment each other so well, they’re like peanut butter and jelly. Reading about them playing against and with each other was a joy from beginning to end.
World Building is Chef’s Kiss
So ornate! So colorful! So well-thought-out!
The world of the empire is such a key to this story, it had to be well-developed, but this? This is gorgeous. Examples?
Just how official communication is done is amazing. Digital messages are sealed into data-sticks of various materials denoting the station and personal style of the sender. When the stick is broken, the digital message is projected to the reader, and most messages are encoded in poetry, not for secrecy, but because this is the height of fashion within the culture. Even better? These messages are also transmitted via network, so the breaking of the seal and projection of the message is purely ceremonial! And that, right there, is the quintessential Empire. It is a windfall of constant ceremony, display and performance.
But, of course, below the ornate surface lurks a deadly, galaxy-consuming behemoth, an aspect of Mahit’s new home that she has a bad tendency to forget.
Keeps You Guessing
Obviously this is something most would expect from a political murder mystery set in an alien empire, but still, I was shocked at how many times this book got the drop on me. Some twists I saw coming, but the ending? I’m not going to spoil it here, but let me just say that while I thought something like it might be coming, the nature and delivery of the thing was definitely a toe-curling surprise.
It’s a Slow Burn
The aspect of slowly unwinding various tendrils of plot doesn’t bother me personally, but if you don’t like a complex, tangled story that takes a while to sort out, this book probably isn’t for you.
What’s in a Name?
Another thing that might throw some readers for a loop is the number/object combination names imperial subjects have. I didn’t have too much trouble keeping track of who was who, but some may find the names fail to stick in the mind. The narrative will do its best to remind you of the nature of the people behind the monikers, but those who have trouble with names may have trouble.
That’s it. That’s all I got for negatives.
Loved it. I inhaled this book really quickly and can’t wait for the sequel. I always love a good sci-fi story with a female protagonist, particularly when she isn’t a brutal badass. This book really fit the bill for me.
What’s it like?
Take a political thriller and set it in a subtly dystopian, futuristic space opera backdrop. Less interstellar dogfights, more spy craft and social maneuvering.
Betchdel Test: Pass