Books : reviews

Arkady Martine.
A Memory Called Empire.
Tor. 2019

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 22 December 2022

In a war of lies she seeks the truth

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare is posted far from her mining station home, to the Empire’s glorious capital. Yet when she arrives, she discovers her predecessor was murdered. But no one will admit his death wasn’t accidental – and she might be next.

Mahit must navigate the capital’s deadly halls of power, while hunting the killer. She must also somehow stop the Empire from annexing her fiercely independent colony. As she sinks deeper into this seductive yet unfamiliar culture, Mahit engages in intrigues of her own. For she’s hiding an extraordinary technological secret, one which might destroy her station and its way of life. Or it might save them all from annihilation.

Mahit Dazur has admired and studied the Teixcalaanli Empire all her life, so when she is posted as Ambassador to its capital planet, this should have been a dream come true. But her predecessor appears to have been up to his neck in possibly treasonous politics that led to his murder, everyone else is playing different dangerous games, her technological backup has been sabotaged, the Emperor is dying, a war is brewing, and her poetry is just not up to scratch. She is swept up in events, and needs all her wits to save herself and her homeland; fortunately, she is well endowed with those.

This is gorgeous. We suffer culture shock and alienation along with Mahit, as we gradually discover what is going on. The Aztec-like names and Chinese-style poetry games add an exotic feel, mixed as they are with AIs, brain implants, and hints of alien invasions. The action takes place over only a handful of days, and much of that action occurs through conversations; the descriptions are rich and detailed and never dull; the contrast between Mahit’s acid internal monologues and what she says out loud are beautiful.

I enjoyed this tremendously. Highly recommended.

Arkady Martine.
A Desolation Called Peace.
Tor. 2020

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 14 May 2023

An alien terror could mean their end

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space, poised to strike. No one can communicate with it, stop it or destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options. So, in a desperate attempt at diplomacy, she sends for envoys. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass, still reeling from their Empire's recent unrest, face an impossible task. For what qualifies them to communicate with a hostile alien entity?

Their failure would mean millions of deaths and an endless war. Their success might prevent Teixcalaan’s destruction – and allow the Empire to continue its rapacious expansion. Or it might lead to something far stranger.

After the events in A Desolation Called Peace, Ambassador Mahit Dzmare has returned home, Three Seagrass has been promoted, and there is a new Emperor. No-one is happy. Mahit has changed so much that home is no longer home, or safe, Three Seagrass wonders why Mahit left, and the Emperor never wanted the job in the first place. Then an alien invasion upends everyone’s plans.

Mahit and Three Seagrass end up together again, trying to communicate with incomprehensible aliens before war destroys everything.

This is even more complex than previously: in addition to understanding the Empire and its attitude to war, we have to understand Mahit’s home politics, and the truly different way the aliens think. As before, the resolution is unexpected, and satisfying, but it isn’t at all easy.