Start: May 9, 2021
Finish: June 17, 2021
Synopsis: An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.
In a desparate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass-still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire-face the impossible task of trying to communication with a hostile entity.
Their failure will guarantee millions of deaths in an endless war. Their success might prevent Teixcalaan’s destruction and allow the Empire to continue its rapacious expansion.
Or it might create something far stranger…
‘A Desolation Called Peace’ begins three months after the events of ‘A Memory Called Empire’ and the (spoiler) chaotic and bloody transition from Emperor Six Direction to Emperor Nineteen Adze included a massive upheaval in some of the bureaucratic agencies within the Empire and a war between Empire and an alien civilization that may potentially diminish or dissolve Teixcalaan. We experience this chaos firsthand from multiple locations and perspective as we’re continue to examine the destruction and seductiveness of a vast Empire that’s alway eager to consume anything within its reach.
The first book closely followed Mahit Dzmare as she navigated the complicated Teixcalaan court and politics. But this sequel provides multiple points of views to navigate. We start at the edges of war, closely following the newly appointed yaotlek Nine Hibiscus who is in charge of winning what feels like an impossible war. We also catch snatches of Teixcalaan under a new Emperor via the POV of Eight Antidote, the ninety percent clone of the former Emperor Six Direction. Of course, Mahit Dzmare returns and she struggles with the weight of everything from the first book and struggles to feel at home on Lsel Station after witnessing firsthand what Teixcalaan is like. Our last POV character is probably my favorite! Three Seagrass, the asekreta, former cultural liaison to the Lsel Station Ambassador and current Third Undersecretary to the Minister of Information, also wrestles with the failed insurrection, installment of the new Emperor and the loss of her friend, Twelve Azalea. If I were to rank the POVs in order of which I enjoyed more, the list would look like this:
- Three Seagrass
- Eight Antidote
- Nine Hibiscus
- Mahit Dzmare
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Mahit’s sections. I loved them, particularly for the way she and Yskander bounced off one another. But Three Seagrass was my favorite character in the first book and I enjoyed reading her observations and thoughts. Her sections brought a necessary levity to a story that has plenty of horrendous scenes and plenty of deaths. But she was never a comic relief character who broke the tension of the story. She maintained that fine balance between causing some chuckles without being too overly comedic.
“You’re who?” asked the cargo-barge engineer.
Three Seagrass waved a hand at her ears. Can’t hear you, someone’s decided to set off an alarm, also that is a terrible question all considered.
“I brought what here?” asked the cargo-barge captain, which was insulting. Three Seagrass was a person, not a what.
And it was fascinating seeing the Empire through the eyes of a child who was destined to become the eventual Emperor. There’s an interesting tension within Eight Antidote: he’s a child, only eleven years old, and yet he’s aware that he’s unlike any other child within the empire. He battles with himself as he experiences natural reactions that most children deal with, yet he doesn’t want to appear as a child in front of the adults or even when he’s alone.
It bothered Eight Antidote, a faint kind of upset like a hum off in one corner of his mind, that Eleven Laurel, a man who had served in twenty campaigns and seen more blood- and star-drenched planets than he could easily imagine, spent an afternoon once a week entertaining an eleven-year-old kid who had snuck in through the basement. There were extenuating circumstances, of course: the obvious one being that Eight Antidote was likely to be Emperor of all Teixcalaan at some point….The Third Undersecretary to the Minister of War, who might see himself Minister in that hypothetical future would have a lot of reasons to amuse that kid.
I think reading Eight Antidote’s sections show just one of the many ways the Empire is an insidious civilization that tries to proclaim itself as civilized, while using brutal tactics to suppress any potential rebellions. We’re introduced to the new Minister of War, Three Azimuth, also known as the Butcher of the Nakharese Mind.
Before Nineteen Adze had become Emperor, Three Azimuth had been the military governor of Nakhar System, and Nakhar hadn’t rebelled while she was in control of it, and Nakhar rebelled every indiction or so usually….
Nine Hibiscus is also described as a lethal and efficient military commander that has the total respect of her soldiers. And of course, with politics thrown in the mix, many within the military have their own personal motivations that influence how they want the war to play out. For as golden and glamorous as Teixcalaan positions itself, the sequel digs further into the violence, suppression and outright horror an empire must rely on to keep its position.
Of course, the empire justifies its violence by drawing a firm line between Teicalaanlitzlim, citizens of the Empire, and all others, which they often call ‘barbarians.’ Humanity and personhood are a major theme in this series. What makes a person? Is it use of language? Memory and how it affects emotion? Is it citizenship to a powerful empire? I’m afraid to delve too deep into this because I fear I may write major spoilers. This theme pops up in multiple ways: Mahit and Three Seagrass struggle to connect because Mahit is constantly reminded that she’s not part of the Empire that she loves and hate; Eight Antidote must decide between forging his own path or staying true to the ancestor that he’s a near perfect clone of; the humans struggle to understand this attacking alien force because it’s so different from any other civilization they’ve encountered before. Identity and humanity were major themes of the first novel and Martine takes those ideas and stretch them to their limits in the sequel.
One final point: The first novel immerses us in the Empire and its many trappings. But in the sequel we’re given some chances to see the universe outside the City. We get to explore Lsel Station, which is much smaller and much more quaint than the City. We also see a desert planet that the Empire colonized for its resources and a warship that’s in the midst of war. We encounter the Lsel Council, whose members have their own objectives and grievances with the Empire and the war being fought practically at their door. One thing that’s abundantly clear: leaders, whether they’re emperors or members of a council, are invested in maintaining the identity of their specific civilization. And this tension impacts the story and its conclusion.
I read on Goodreads that ‘A Desolation Called Peace’ is the final book in this short series. I’m not sure if it’s true or not. Personally, I’d love a continuation. There’s much to explore. There are story elements from both books that haven’t been addressed. There’s a rogue imago-machine somewhere in the Empire and there are some domestic struggles that the new Emperor is dealing with. That being said, I think Mahit and Three Seagrass’ story came to a satisfactory end and if there’s another book in the series, I’m almost okay with these two characters not returning or returning in a diminished capacity. But I also love them and their chemistry (both romantic and platonic), so I wouldn’t too upset if they play major roles in any potential future books.
Conclusion- ‘A Desolation Called Peace’ is a great follow up to ‘A Memory Called Empire.’ There’s so much tension and intrigue throughout this series, that it requires multiple readings. I’d love a continuation to the series, whether as a direct follow up to this book or through an exploration of the earlier days of the Teixcalaan Empire. Not only is the series thoughtful and philosophical, it’s packed with twists, moments that tug at your heart and make you chuckle. There are countless morally grey characters that you’ll love and loathe. ‘A Desolation Called Peace’ was one of my most anticipated novels of 2021 and I’m thrilled that it lived up to my expectations. If you have the slightest inkling to read this series, go out, find a copy and prepare to enter a brutal, awe-inspiring, treacherous, complicated universe.