Review: A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine

This is a book that I knew from first glance would be very much My Thing. A space opera/hard scifi book focusing on political manoeuvring but also a murder mystery, with a female protagonist, which examines the structures and effects of empires and deconstructs imperial/colonial attitudes. There’s also a lot of linguistics in the background, and poetry! The only thing Martine could possibly have added here would be some sort of highly symbolic embroidery, and then the complex venn diagram of Things I Like would have this book at the very centre.

I’ve read some incredibly good books about empire in the last year or two. The most recent was The Traitor Baru Cormorant (published in the UK as The Traitor) by Seth Dickinson, which I read almost entirely in one sitting as I waited for a hospital appointment. I went in to that appointment with my head absolutely buzzing, and haven’t stopped thinking about the book in the five or six months since. I also adored Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice trilogy, which has a lot in common with A Memory Called Empire. Leckie focuses mostly on the military side of things, whereas Martine is interested in politics and diplomacy and colonisation through culture, but there are many similarities. They’re different enough, however, that I was able to enjoy A Memory Called Empire in its own right without constantly comparing back and forth.

Empires are practically ubiquitous in scifi and fantasy, and there’s a lot of fascinating reasons why. I could probably spend an entire phD digging into it, but I’ll settle for doing an actual review of this book.

Mahit Dzmare, our main character, is a citizen of Lsel Station, a small mining and pilot community based on a space station. It lives on the fringes of the massive Teixcalaan Empire, with which the Stationers have an uneasy peace. The threat of the empire suddenly deciding to conquer their region of space is ever-present, which makes for a difficult relationship. Because of the station’s small size, it also doesn’t have much of a cultural scene, and that void is filled with Teixcalaan literature and poetry. Mahit has grown up wanting desperately to visit the Teixcalaan city, and gets her opportunity when Lsel Station receives an unexpected request for a new ambassador, with no explanation of what might have happened to the old one. She’s then dumped into a culture which she adores and has spent her life studying, but finds she’s dangerously out of her depth. She must decide who to trust, what to say, and how to handle the minefield her predecessor left behind, all whilst speaking a language that absolutely swims in allegory and reference.

Martine captures wonderfully the confusion of living on the fringes of a big empire – we’re torn, as Mahit is, between loving the complexity of Teixcalaan culture and its people and the uncomfortable knowledge that it is, in fact, an Empire, and by its nature something that will cheerfully conquer other states and peoples. The friends Mahit makes in the City are her friends, but they could at any moment become her enemies. She has to keep her people’s secrets whilst also protecting them from the Empire’s clutches, and her support from home is damaged by conflicting political ideologies and attitudes towards the Empire.

The pace of the action starts rising pretty much from the first couple of chapters and doesn’t let up – there are brief pauses but always a gathering tension, and the underlying concern that Mahit doesn’t know what’s going on. You are never entirely sure who to trust, who knows what, or who the ‘bad’ and ‘good’ guys are (I’m still not sure!). There are mysteries within mysteries and I never had any idea what would happen next.

With a build-up like this, and knowing that this is supposed to be the first in a series, I was concerned that the climax would let me down a little, but I needn’t have worried. Martine tied everything together in a way that both satisfied me and left me hungry for more. Unfortunately, given that this book isn’t published til April, I have a terribly long time to wait for a sequel. I suppose I shall just have to write overly long reviews and recommend it to everyone instead.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. A Memory Called Empire is published 4th April 2019.


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