Arkady Martine’s science fiction debut is one of those rare novels that haunts me in my sleep. It’s been days since I put it down, and yet scenes from “A Memory Called Empire” will come back to me, as vividly as something I’ve lived through instead of just reading about. I’ve relived its climax several times, in fact; Martine’s prose has imprinted in me such an unforgettable scene as few others I’ve had the pleasure of reading in recent months.
In current parlance, I am shook.
A Memory Called Empire is a celebration of masterful worldbuilding and cerebral storytelling, the story of exciting political intrigue and murder, of civilization and the other. All these vastly differing aspects are threaded seamlessly into one, a narrative that enfolds steadily at first, turning ever more unpredictable and complex as the story progresses.
The reader will find the culture and society of the Teixcalaanli Empire both familiar and alien; while individuals are driven by passions that will be familiar to any of us, the culture is ruled by an obsession with the past and the recreating of it. One of the tools in the recreation of the Teixcalaanli’s past is poetry, which plays a unique role in the Empire, from politics to its every other social aspect. Whether criticizing authority or in defense of it, poets have influence enough over the citizens of the Empire to force them onto the streets; the role of poets reminded me of what Percy Bysshe Shelley described as “…legislators of the world” in his essay, “A Defence of Poetry.”
Language too, is fascinating – especially from behind the eyes of protagonist Mahit Dzmare, Lsel Station ambassador to the Teixcalaanli Empire. Early on, the complexities of language are illustrated:
In the groundcar, Three Seagrass asked, “Have you been within the world long?”
Mahit needed to stop thinking in any language but Teixcalaanli. What Three Seagrass meant was a standard bit of politesse small talk, a have you ever been to my country before, and Mahit had heard it like an existential question.
Intricacies of the Empire’s language, heritage and legacy are investigated time and time again, scrupulously examined and reexamined by Martine, and voice is given to some truly exciting and fascinating ideas. Doing the ideas in this book justice in a review is next to impossible – I could write an essay for each of the themes in this novel but I doubt I’d do all of them the justice Arkady Martine has.
Before I move onto the characters, I want to emphasize how impressed I was to see “A Glossary of Persons, Places and Objects” in the back of the book, which included a short breakdown of pronunciation of the Teixcalaanli language. As a recent student of phonetics, I couldn’t be more thrilled about having this delicious morsel of additional worldbuilding!
Mahit Dzmare is a likable, intelligent young woman, sent to serve as Ambassador at the pleasure of the Emperor of Teixcalaan. In her head is an imago – a device which carries a dated version of the previous Lsel Station ambassador, Yskandr…or at least a virtual capture of his memories, personality and inner voice. The need for Mahit is great, for the physical Yskandr has been murdered, his absence leaving an unexpected vacuum in some of the working of the Empire. But why is the representative of a miniscule culture like that of Lsel Station of such importance? Mahit will struggle with these questions, and their answers will prove more dangerous than she might, at first glance, seem capable of dealing with.
But there is more to Mahit than first meets the eye. This young woman who is in love with Teixcalaanli culture and yet anxious of it is the perfect vessel to present a deeply philosophical conversation about the clash between civilization and barbarism, the self and the other, and the conflicting loyalties between all these, and more.
Amid the cast of supporting characters, many were memorable but I grew most fond of Three Seagrass (naming conventions are a whole other thing, let me tell you!). Reed, as she’s known to her friends, is driven by self-described “vainglorious personal ambition” but the bond that develops between her and Mahit speaks of more than just fascination for barbarians.
Another strong character is the ezuazuacat Nineteen Adze(a member of the Emperor’s personal advisory council, deriving from the original name of the emperor’s sworn band of warriors). A cunning, brilliant battle commander and political agent, Adze is one of the truly most fascinating characters encountered in the book. I’ll let these quotes speak for her:
Mahit wondered if Nineteen Adze had just made a joke. It was difficult to tell – the humor of it cut so sharply, if it was humor. A joke like that could flay a person open before they noticed the pain. (110)
After the conversation over the tea she oughtn’t to have been able to manage sarcasm—but perhaps that was part of the point of Nineteen Adze: that the glittering, quickspoken politician who made you want to toss quips back and forth with her was the same creature who could slice a conversation to ribbons and make you want to weep that she understood. (120)
[Nineteen Adze] introduced comfort and withdrew it like a master interrogator, and Mahit was agonizingly tired of the emotional swing. (123)
Adze is one hell of a wildcard, and I’m very interested to see what road Martine’s series will take her next.
The climax of this novel, as I said very early on, is an absolute masterpiece. There’s nothing more I can say that’ll not be considered a spoiler, and I would never take the pleasure of unearthing such a gem of a scene from you.
I hope I’ve given you enough reasons to take a gamble on this debut novel. I have no doubt it’s going to be amongst the finest science fiction novels to be published this year, and it’s among my personal candidates for debut of the year. I give this book a score of 6/5, (or an 11/10) in recognition of its excellence. This translates to a score of 5/5 on Goodreads and Amazon, on account of these sites not giving me the opportunity to add stars to their scoring. Damn them!
You should pick A Memory Called Empire if:
- You’re a sci-fi fan, with a particular interest in the less action-oriented, more cerebral side of the sci-fi coin;
- You’ve got the worldbuilding bug and want to see someone do it so much better than you ever could—alright, I might be self-identifying here;
- You’re fascinated with different, alien cultures;
- You’re a poet seeking to identify what goes into a poet-centric empire;
- You’re looking for a practical how-to guide just before your very first ambassadorial term begins, in an empire that’s likely to consume your home;
- And more! Prob’ly.
Originally published over at booknest.eu