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.
I’ve been really excited for A Desolation Called Peace, only to discover that I’d forgotten everything in the previous book. So it was time for a reread.
A Memory Called Empire is a smart book. It’s also full of yearning. Like Mahit I can taste poetry on my tongue and suddenly I am 17 again, desperately studying French poetry and hoping to be devoured by a culture that I can never be a part of.
The world of Teixcalaan is confusing, full of so many moving political pieces. There is action in this story, but the protagonists are not people of physical action. Mahit is an ambassador, alone, sabotaged and uncertain who she can rely on. Three Seagrass is Mahit’s cultural liaison from the Ministry of Information. Twelve Azalea is Three Seagrass’ friend and coworker. None of them are fighters or have a single clue what is happening before they’re swept into a succession crisis and coup attempt.
Often culture gets neglected in speculative fiction. Not because authors don’t care about it, but because culture is a huge, constantly moving beast. It grows, transforms, and devours. I’m not actually sure it’s possible to write a book in under 500 pages that explores the complexity of human cultures in relation to each other, and within itself. A Memory Called Empire sure gives it a good try though.
Mahit’s relationship with Teixcalaan, and by extension Three Seagrass as a character representative of the Empire, is complicated. Their relationship is well written though and I loved seeing how it transformed over the course of the book. The ending is bittersweet in a way, but is also satisfactory in addition to leaving room for the sequel.
I highly recommend A Memory Called Empire for fans of Ursula K. Le Guin who want to read a riveting story about two cultures meeting, but want to think more about the cultural aspects, rather than military.
About the Author
Arkady Martine is speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, a historian of the Byzantine Empire and a city planner. She is currently a policy advisor for the New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department, where she works on climate change mitigation, energy grid modernization, and resiliency planning. Under both her names she writes about border politics, rhetoric, propaganda, and the edges of the world. Her first novel, A Memory Called Empire, won the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Arkady grew up in New York City and, after some time in Turkey, Canada, Sweden, and Baltimore, lives in Santa Fe with her wife, the author Vivian Shaw. Find her online at arkadymartine.net or on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.