A Desolation Called Peace – by Arkady Martine

After A Memory Called Empire, it’s now time to talk about A Desolation Called Peace, second and final book of the Teixcalaan duology. Most of what I said about the previous installment apply here too, however there are some distinctive themes that are worth discussing on their own.

Title: A Desolation Called Peace

Author: Arkady Martine

Publisher: Tor Books

Publication Date: 2nd March 2021

Genre: Science Fiction Novel

Stand Alone or Series: Second book in the Teixcalaan series

Synopsis: A Memory Called Empire had explored the inner workings of the Tleixcalaanli society and its relationships with other human civilizations, until its ending had left us on the brink of a war with a non-human civilization . Now, in A Desolation Called Peace, the focus is shifted on a dangerous dynamic between the Empire and an alien species – a powerful, threatening, and largely mysterious one. In a desperate attempt at diplomacy, Thee Seagrass and Mahit Dzmare are called to action once again, this time with the task to decipher the elusive alien’s language. With the help of the stoic Twenty Cicada they are able to establish a frail and impervious line of communication, however not everyone in the capital has faith in their plans for a truce.

Analysis: Not unlike A Memory Called Empire, the novel alternates regular narration with a variety of excerpts and quotations that help fleshing out the setting. While the previous book was mostly focused on Mahit’s experience, however, here we get to see a variety of points of view: not only Three Seagrass is given her own voice, but we also get acquainted with fleet admiral Nine Hibiscus, who experiences the conflict in a different capacity; moreover, if the young Eight Antidote only appeared as a secondary character in A Memory Called Empire, here the child is given his own plot arc, that will end up playing a role more and more essential as the events unfold.

Once again, Martine gives her best when dealing with linguistics and the role of communication in her universe. While the reveal that the aliens are indeed a hive mind is not all that shocking for anyone familiar with sci-fi themes and tropes, it is nevertheless quite charming to see our characters try all possible ways to inetract with creatures very different from themselves. If previously cultural mediation had been a matter of subtlety, of easily missed nuances, here the contaxt is so extreme that even the simplest form of communication might appear impossible.

The use of multiple perspectives also helps adding depth to characters other than Mahit, and to showcase different – but all legitimate and believable – points of view on the same events. More space is given to the romance between Mahit and Three Seagrass, showing not only the excitement that comes with a new love, but also the challenges implied by a relationship between two people who belong to different culture, with unequal levels of power and privilege.

As for the plot, it has its highs and lows. The story is fairly engaging – indeed, the author manages to make negotiations and xenolinguistics as entertaining as epic action, and the personal stakes and hard choices the characters are forced to face make for some rather moving scene. On the other hand, not unlike in A Memory Called Empire, all the plotting and politicking is not as smart as it’s supposed to be, with essential developments that rely more on luck than on diplomatic genius. This only exacerbates the impression that the main characters are only brought back because, well, they are the main characters, even though one would assume such a powerful Empire would have more experienced and trusted officers to send on such a mission.

Conclusions & Recommendations: If you’ve enjoyed A Memory Called Empire, its sequel is sure worth reading: while it doesn’t really improve the issues I had with the first book, it still maintains its best qualities, and adds a few more variations on its most interesting themes.

Content Warning: Death, xenophobia, suicide, body horror.

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