Review: A Memory Called Empire

Posted: July 9, 2019 by in Books We Love (5/5 single_star) Meta: Arkady Martine, Science Fiction, Space Opera
A Memory Called Empire

A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE (Amazon) is full of political intrigue and deception and culture-shock and poetry, all of which is to say: I loved it. For fans of Ann Leckie, Arkady Martine’s debut novel has rich worldbuilding and a sympathetic narrator that will pull you into the galaxy-spanning Teixcalaan Empire.

Mahit Dzmare is the newest ambassador from Lsel Station, a small pinprick of humanity trying to resist being engulfed by the ever-expanding maw of the Teixcalaan Empire. Young and untested, Mahit is sent to the center of the empire when her predecessor, Yksander, unexpectedly dies. Although Mahit is traveling by herself, she isn’t alone. Yksander’s imago — a living memory — is integrated into her mind. It’s almost a decade out of date, since her predecessor rarely returned to the Station, but Mahit will need even the imago’s incomplete knowledge to guide her through Teixcalaan.

Mahit’s hidden advantage disappears when the imago breaks. Unsure if she’s been the victim of sabotage or accident, Mahit (aided by her liaison Three Seagrass) races to understand who might have wanted Yksander dead and what sort of political mess he left her to clean up.

Before long she realizes the problem she’s facing is larger than she imagined as she navigates a dangerous algorithm in the form of the City, a succession crisis, and imprisonment in the guise of protection. In a culture obsessed with narrative, Mahit’s fight for Lsel station tests her wits and instincts, and ability to write poetry on the fly (this is a good thing).

A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE is told almost entirely from Mahit’s perspective, and part of the fun of the novel discovering the City along with her. Martine does an excellent job of pulling out the fundamental tensions of integrating into a new culture and it’s an experience I think will resonate with many readers.

Martine is attentive to her language as she is to her careful worldbuilding. A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE is beautiful to read and will stay with you.

While Martine certainly explores food and religion and art as part of her worldbuilding, she’s also interested in how different cultures answer fundamental questions about the self. The Teixcalaanli are weirded out by any type of neurological enhancement or modification. The survival of Lsel station depends on their imago lines. Setting up this contrast (among others) and exploring the results makes Martine’s world feel rich and structured and very real.

Mahit is an interesting and personable narrator. Whiles she is highly competent in Teixcalaanli culture, a lifetime of study can’t make up for actual experience. She can’t shake her sense of being a barbarian: too tall, too demonstrative, too…other. This sense makes Mahit painfully aware that even her triumphs will never make her fully Teixcalaanli. It’s a complicated emotional journey and a rewarding one.

A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE is also centered on the lack of a character. Yksander’s absence is central to the plot. Yksander is characterized through the impressions he left, the reactions of other courtiers and bureaucrats to Mahit and her presence, the strange emotional reactions Mahit experiences to certain people, a leftover endocrine response from her failed imago. Yksander becomes familiar even as Mahit is unsure if she will ever be able to share his memories again, an arc which makes her loss increasingly meaningful for the reader as they move through the story.

Martine is as attentive to her language as she is to her worldbuilding. A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE is beautiful to read with an exciting plot. It’s a novel that will stay with you after you’ve closed its covers.

  • Recommended Age: 12+
  • Language: Minimal swearing
  • Violence: Yes, but mostly threatened. A small gunfight.
  • Sex: Mentioned, recalled, minimal detail.

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