Start: April 8, 2021
Finish: April 26, 2021
Synopsis: Ambassador Mahit Dzmare travels to the capital of the interstellar Teixcalaanli Empire, eager to take up her new post. She arrives only to discover that her predecessor has died, and no one will admit that his death wasn’t accidental–or that Mahit might be next.
Now Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her small but fiercely independent mining 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.
I’m not usually a big fan of the ‘political/court intrigue’ subgenre. But my gosh I’m in love with this book! This was my second time reading A Memory Called Empire. I listened to the audiobook back in 2020. (Interestingly and accidentally, I read it in April of last year as well.) The sequel novel, A Desolation Called Peace was published back in March which is why I decided to read through the first novel again.
So let’s get into my review. I hope by the end I’ve convinced you to check out this imaginative and wondrous series.
A Memory Called Empire follows Mahit Dzmare, the newly minted ambassador to the vast and ravenous Teixcalannli Empire. At the start of the story, her mission is simple: discover what happened to the previous ambassador and keep the empire from annexing her home, Lsel Station. But the simple quickly spirals into the complicated within Mahit’s first few hours in the City, the planet that serves as the heart of the Empire. Mahit is a relatable character. A young woman who starts a new job and quickly finds that it’s way more than what she bargained for, she wrestles with her desire to be a part of Teixcalannli while remaining acutely aware that her desires will never come to fruition. Mahit spends a majority of the novel wishing to sleep through her problems while sifting through typical Teixcalannli bureaucracy to find the answers to her most pressing questions. Yet her predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn, revealed sensitive Lsel information and Mahit is forced to face the fallout from his decisions. Mahit is joined by Three Seagrass, her cultural liaison and an absolute gem of a character. Three Seagrass’s motivations are clear.
Three Seagrass sighed. “Vainglorious personal ambition,” she began, ticking off her reasons on her fingers, beginning with the thumb, “genuine curiosity about the former Ambassador’s rise to the highest favor of His Majesty….And, I like aliens.”
Though as the story progresses, those motivations begin to muddy. There are countless other side characters, each just as complex and willing to help or hinder Mahit’s pursuits.
The empire at the heart of this story is as much a character as anyone else in this novel. Controlled by an AI that tracks citizens through their skyhooks, a device that feeds citizens countless sources of information, the City and the Teicalaanli Empire are a beauty and a menace throughout the book.
Outside, the city was a blur of steel and pale stone, neon lights crawling up and down the glass walls of its skyscrapers…Properly, it was more of a city-within-a-city than a palace. By statistics, it had several hundred thousand inhabitants, all of whom were responsible in some minute fashion for the functioning of the Empire, from the gardeners on up to Six Direction himself: each of them plugged into the information network that was guaranteed to imperial citizens, and every last one bathed in a constant flow of data that told them where to be, what to do, how the story of their day and week and epoch would go.
As beautiful and poetic as the Teixcalaanli Empire is, it’s also a huge mess! It’s bindings are beginning to show and wear out. Yet the citizenry (or at least, those with power and influence) seem unbothered by the civil unrest that’s just below the surface. Mahit and the readers are forced to confront the ugliness within the empire. I think this unease within Teixcalanni hits hard this second read-through as I live through a difficult period within the US as the cracked foundations of this country continue to give way. It feels like a reminder that an empire can only extend so far before it’s forced to snap back to its original state. The unrest is addressed in this first novel and I’m curious to see what ramifications unfold in the sequel.
The writing is nothing short of amazing. It’s poetic and vivid and lush. The author plays with language in way that’s genius and inspiring. I encourage multiple readings because it’s easy to gloss over necessary details. And there’s a lot packed into this world. It feels lived in and unique. It’s immersive and Martine trusts the readers to decipher the meaning behind terms and phrases based on the context clues she sprinkles in the narrative. As an author who enjoys writing about food, I appreciated those moments when she took the time to envelope the readers in the scents and tastes of cuisine within the empire:
At sunset Three Seagrass ordered them both small bowls of a spiced meat in dumpling wrappers, covered in a creamy semi-fermented sauce laced with red oil, assuring Mahit that it was extremely unlikely that she would be allergic to anything in the meal…It burst when she bit into it, tangy and warm. The red oil was finely spiced, just hot enough to linger on her tongue and make her wonder about neurotoxic effects before it faded to pleasantness.
I believe Arkady Martine is a historian and Byzantine scholar, so I’m glad that she explores both the political reality of this universe and the small, mundane aspects of this empire. It breathes life into the world.
A Memory Called Empire is one of my favorite novels. It seamlessly blends the political intrigue and mystery with the messy, personal lives of those involved. We’re given a breathtaking world and shown its ugliness that’s not too far below the surface. Mahit is a character who tries hard to do the right thing, but continues to come up short in the political game. It’s a careful study of empire, of why we love it and despise it. It’s worth more than one read!
If you’ve read this novel, let me know what you thought of it and if you’ve had a chance to read the sequel. Or tell me in the comments what book you’re currently reading!
Take care! Until next time!