A Memory Called Empire – by Arkady Martine

Advertised as a science fiction series that focuses on linguisitics and on interplanetary diplomacy, with a good side serving of sapphic romance, the Teixcalaan duology couldn’t help but pique my interest. As for its quality, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, since I had read a number of very enthusiastic reviews, but also a few extremely harsh ones, with very little middle ground. After reading it, I must say I’ve ended up developing a much more nuanced opinion – indeed, I found the series quite enjoyable, but at the same time I couldn’t ignore its shortcomings. N.B.: even though I have already finshed both books in the series, I’ll try to talk about each of them separately; today I’ll be focusing on the first installment, while A Desolation Called Peace will be the subject of one of the upcoming posts.

Title: A Memory Called Empire

Author: Arkady Martine

Publisher: Tor Books

Publication Date: 26th March 2019

Genre: Science Fiction Novel

Stand Alone or Series: First book in the Teixcalaan series

Synopsis: Mahit Dzmare, newest ambassador of the small but fiercely independent Lsel Station, is sent to the court of the Teixcalaanli Empire to replace her predecessor after his mysterious disappearance. She soon finds out that the previous ambassador is dead, and while all evidence points to murder, official sources still claim his death has been nothing but a tragic accident. Meanwhile, Teixcalaan is facing a succession crisis, the outcome of which might be decisive for Lsel Station’s fate as well. Helped by her charming cultural liaison Three Seagrass, Mahit investigates on what happened, while also trying her best to keep both herself and her homeland safe.

Analysis: The novel combines a third-person narration (mainly from Mahit’s limited point of view) with number of “excerpts” from all sorts of in-universe written sources, from pieces of Teixcalaanli literature to bureaucratic communications. While such a stylistic choice isn’t especially innovative in itself, it is quite appropriate in a book such as this, in which the peculiarities of language are essential for the worldbuilding.

Indeed, Mahit’s thoughts often gravitate around the topic of language and translation; being fluent in Teixcalaanli, but not a native speaker, she’s very aware of the shifts in meaning that come with each language, and of their close ties with deeper concepts and worldviews. For instance, the fact that the same term can signify “empire” and “world” is both an effect and a reinforcement of the Teixcalaanli expansionist vocation. The essential role played by poetry and figurative language in the context of Teixcalaanli culture adds another layer of complexity to their communication.

While all these nuances are truly a fascinating way to flesh out our fictional civilization, I have more mixed feelings about Martine’s own writing: in fact, while her prose is overall quite pleasant, and descriptions are effective in creating the required ambiance, I couldn’t help but notice a few slips in tone that are hard to unsee, such as the use of overly informal language in contexts where a very different register would have been expected. I can’t tell if it was a conscious choice, perhaps to enhance the characters’ emotional urgency or any similar effect – whatever the intention, it ends up sounding out of character more than anything else.

More in general, the main appeal of this novel lays in its worldbuilding, that accounts for a number of varied faciets, from political traditions to etiquette, from naming conventions to technological excellences and taboos. Arkady Martine draws from her own academic background and uses elements from real-world cultures (specifically, the Byzantine and the Atztecs) to endow her fictional empire with a more lived-in flavour, thus avoiding that bland and aseptic vibe that is the bane of space bound settings.

The power imbalance between the Empire and Lsel Station is a key premise of the story, however it’s not developed in a black and white fashion; the Empire is aggressive and dangerours, but it’s not depicted as inherently monstrous, and both cultures as portrayed as complex rather than purely good or evil; more interestingly, their power play isn’t just a matter of strength, but of intellectual influence as well, and we often see Mahit questioning herself for her deep passion for Tleixcalaanli culture.

While futuristic technology isn’t the main focus of the novel, it does play a relevant role, especially in how it intersects with each culture’s beliefs: the Empire has more powerful military resources and a widespread interactive network, however, due to the very pragmatic need to preserve their best talents, Lses Station has developed a most impressive device, that allows someone’s memories to be passed down to a chosen successor (think a cybernetic version of the Trill’s symbiont); such a concept is anathema to Tleixcalaanli tradition – that emphasizes the trasmission of memory by the more refined means of sublime poetical references – but also an appealing temptation to those who could see how to exploit it.

Overall, a quite impressive worldbuilding. I have no interest in discussing the fine points of its realism as long as it features a tapestry of fascinating ideas. Other aspects of the novel are however much less satisfying: as for the plot, the murder mystery is surely a quick way to grab attention, however its execution is quite lackluster, and the entire story is often moved on by sheer luck, contrieved coincidences, inconsistencies that are too obviously motivated by plot convenience. Our protagonists are supposed to be extremely smart, cunning, politcally savvy, but actually appear incredibly clueless and naive – to the point of being handing out extremely secret knowledge that they were supposed to protect, to basically anyone who asks nicely. To be clear, I really don’t mind characters being dumb – as long as they’re not implied to be friggin’ geniuses such as in this case.

I must say, if the characters weren’t written all that well, both in terms of consistency and depth, at least I didn’t mind their interactions; the romance doesn’t take too much space in this novel, but still the two leads had a decent chemistry, and liked how they took their time to warm up to each other. Not necessarily a major selling point, but being spared some atrocious insta-love is still good news.

Conclusions & Recommendations: Despite my most critical notes, I think A Memory Called Empire is a fairly valid novel, for its captivating worldbuilding if nothing else. My reading experience was overall enjoyable: exploring the setting was a pleasure in itself, and for all its clumsiness, the story still gave me at least a modicum of motivation to discover what was going to happen. If you’re a fan of speculative fiction I would cautiously recommend it, but only as long as you have some tolerance for the above-mentioned issues.

Content Warning: Death, xenophobia, suicide.

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