A Memory Called Empire
December 3, 2019 7:51 AM - by Arkady Martine - Subscribe

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn't an accident. Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, to save herself and her way of life. Arkady Martine, scholar of Byzantine, history brings all her knowledge of intricate political maneuvering to bear in her debut space opera.

“A Memory Called Empire” makes much of past and future selves, of memory and language and the things that can change them. One of the first questions Mahit asks her cultural liaison is, “How wide is the Teixcalaanli concept of ‘you’?” — a question that roots philosophy in grammar, makes manifest how language and custom are indissociable from the politics of conquest. With incredible clarity and precision, Martine folds layer after layer of complexity into this book, such that it, like Mahit, is a fusion of Lsel Station and Teixcalaan: welding beauty and efficiency, building engineering out of verse. It left me utterly dazzled. - Amal El-Mohtar

Ultimately, the temptations of the City and the Teixcalaanli Empire, and the struggle to truly be seen as “civilized” in the eyes of those who defined the word, rather than a “barbarian,” provide the story’s central conflict, as Mahit fights against warring impulses. Does she give in to the joy she feels at being accepted by a people and a culture that look down on her, or instead defend the fierce pride and love she has for her home, protecting that identity and those parts of herself from the mighty, overwhelming influence of the Empire? Martine doesn’t turn away from the brutal forms this type of emotional colonization can take, nor from the effects it can have on the souls being forced to grapple with the effects of that colonization. - Martin Cahill
posted by tofu_crouton (23 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm still finishing it but I would already recommend it to fans of the Goblin Emperor or Ancillary Mercy.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:51 AM on December 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

This was so good.

So, so good.
posted by kyrademon at 7:56 AM on December 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

This book was excellent, just the kind of amazing science fiction that can really delve into concepts of memory, identity, civilization and colonialism. There's so much to unpack in here. Highly recommended.
posted by dellsolace at 8:00 AM on December 3, 2019

I really loved this book. The worldbuilding was fascinating and left me with a lot to think about, while the plot built tension nicely and kept me engaged. Plus, despite the fact that LGBTQ representation in fiction is something I seek out, I had somehow missed anyone telling me that this particular book was queer, so the f/f relationship development at the end was a wonderful surprise.
posted by bridgebury at 1:41 PM on December 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

One of the very few books lately that I've liked just as much as everybody on the Internet does. Worldbuilding/characterization/plotting all A+.
posted by huimangm at 2:53 PM on December 3, 2019

It's funny you mention that, bridgebury, because I thought about recommending it to a friend who doesn't like sff that much but does want to read queer sff. Then I thought that even telling her about it would be a spoiler, so I didn't.
posted by tofu_crouton at 4:08 PM on December 3, 2019

I loved this as well. I gave it five stars on Goodreads/Amazon, which I usually only do about three or four times a year.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:46 PM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm still finishing it but I would already recommend it to fans of the Goblin Emperor or Ancillary Mercy.

Oh shit, you just insta-sold me
posted by smoke at 2:10 AM on December 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

I liked this! Though I did keep trying to pigeonhole the Teixcalaanli as "XXXX empire in space!" for various values of XXXX, which is a bad habit I need to work on.

Also we need more SF written by scholars of Byzantium.
posted by Justinian at 8:57 PM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

FYI for you lucky bastards in the US, it's only 2.99 at the moment. Still full price here, damn it.
posted by smoke at 2:13 AM on December 5, 2019

The sequel's title is _A Desolation Called Peace_ which is a reference to one of my favorite quotations ever!
posted by Justinian at 10:02 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

It seems to be a banner year for queer SF, at least as far as my reading list goes. This was one of my favorites this year, as was Amal El-Mohtar/Max Gladstone's This Is How You Lose The Time War.
posted by lhauser at 6:11 PM on December 8, 2019

You know, I thought it was fine, good even. Personally, I would not be giving it the over the top praise I've seen from other people.

Maybe I'm just getting old and picky.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:59 PM on December 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I enjoyed it but also had qualms.

A lot of the tension comes from Mahit lying and trying to keep another character from finding out some truth. Unfortunately that tension is weakened because ultimately by the end everyone knows everything. There was little overall need to keep things a secret. One of the most dramatic actions that Mahit undertakes is done to decipher a very secret code. She then immediately tells everyone what was encoded.

It's also narratively confusing. It's hard as a reader to keep track of which characters know which truths and which lies. When Mahit does finally tell a character the truth, there is no drama to it because I as the reader have known for a while and had already forgotten that it was supposed to be a secret for ~reasons~.

I love the worldbuilding and themes though, so I look forward to the next installment.
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:44 AM on December 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

The intrigue was suspiciously "cozy", yeah, in the sense that everybody you want to be trustworthy ultimately is. But not every space opera needs to have Dune-level plot machinations, and a certain level of false drama seems to be in keeping with Teixcalaanli culture anyway.

On top of which, the very precarious nature of Mahit's success -- things can still go very badly for Lsel, as a Texcalaan-aligned "neutral" station at the crossroads of a major galactic war -- and the fact that all the "trustworthy" characters stood to benefit, and did, by helping Mahit get her way prevented the conclusion from feeling unsatisfyingly easy.

I'm looking forward to the next one as well, although part of me wishes that for once someone would write a good sci-fi novel with compelling world-building that's just a one-and-done novel instead of a sprawling epic.
posted by tobascodagama at 4:50 PM on December 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

How did I miss this thread? I absolutely love this book and have recommended it to just about everyone and not just because the author is a close friend of mine. I got to read the sequel yesterday and oh man, everyone is in for a treat.

the fact that all the "trustworthy" characters stood to benefit, and did, by helping Mahit get her way prevented the conclusion from feeling unsatisfyingly easy

This was absolutely why the romance (a thing I very seldom care much about) worked incredibly well for me. Those two characters are obviously compatible on a personal level, but their priorities are such that the success of their relationship is incredibly contingent on the alignment of their political goals, and Mahit realizes this. And doesn't settle for it.

And man, poetry in fiction very seldom works on me the way it's described working on the characters, but... "Released, I am a spear in the hands of the sun." I realized the implications of it about three paragraphs before it was explicitly stated, and it kinda blew my mind. So few endings really have the impact they want to, but this one did.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:01 AM on January 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

Oh gosh, so I finished this, and didn't like it much at all! I feel like I'm the only one in the world who didn't! Admittedly, my expectations were sky-high as this book was on virtually every best of year list etc. I thought it had a terrific set up that was mostly squandered and it suffered from numerous problems, including:

- The whole imago concept was wasted, the author told us time and time again that it wasn't a "Jiminy Cricket" type voice in the head, but that's exactly what she made the imago out to be in 90% of the situations. The ambassador should have been a different person entirely, and then 'half a person'. The idea of how imagos would influence the stationer culture was never fleshed out properly.

- This highlights another problem, infodumps were common there was sooooooo much tell-don't-show in the novel. It felt clumsy and often unnecessary; I think she probably did it because of the propulsive plot, which was a positive and a negative because...

- Whilst I ripped through the book, the narrative has our protagonist entirely reactive. She's so passive, everything in the book happens to her, virtually nothing is a result of her character or actions.

- The author has a really bizarre idea of how embassies work. What kind of embassy has no staff? What kind ambassador spends most of their time personally reading and approving visas? So weird. Having a super young ambassador only made sense when the imago was involved (though barely even). Her inexperience was not found unusual by anyone else though.

- Much like stationer culture, the culture of the empire was inconsistently examined and explicated. I mean, the book has empire in the title, it's meant to be all about empire, but I felt her examination of what that actually means was so facile and one dimensional.

- Many of the motivations were iffy. Why would anyone help her, really? Why were the three main characters all so young and without family etc? They were too "cool for school", read like fan fic.

There were parts of the book I liked. The ideas/concept. The pacing. But it just felt really immature and rushed, and I felt like a lot of the discussion of empire was just immature and lacking.

The Traitor Baru Comorant was also a first novel, was actually all about empire and is a far superior book on every level (indeed, one of the best fantasy novels I've read in the last few years). It had a far more interesting (though still young) protagonist, that absolutely drove its powderkeg plot forward with her own actions. It had a wide variety of characters and character types with different, complex, motivations. Its world building infused absolutely everything, and as an examination of what empire truly is and does it is brutal, stunning, mature.

I dunno, I was disappointed.
posted by smoke at 5:23 PM on June 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

Smoke, I have similar feelings about this book. The political intrigue seemed somewhat clumsy, and the main character is mostly reactive. And reading about people who go on days without proper sleep make me very anxious about their cognitive functions when they need to stay at their sharpest.
I do love the themes of cultural colonization and poetry as political speech.
posted by of strange foe at 1:35 PM on August 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

I just finished the audio book, and I enjoyed it, but I don't think it was in the same league as Middlegame for plotting of character or Gideon the Ninth for setting. I'd classify it as a very ambitious first novel that needed to be quiet a bit longer to really hit the mark.

Stuff I liked:
1. The mixture of source cultures. Byzantium and Mesoamerica are not where authors usually go for inspiration.

2. The personalities of many of the central characters, Mahit, 3 Reed, and 12 Azalea all seemed believable with fairly believable (if stock) reactions. Mahit is especially good as a fish out of water, beset by several conspiracies, and suffering from debilitating neurological problems. I didn't think she was excessively passive, more careful to take action because so many actions would be deadly.

3. There were some good red herrings -- "is the city infrastructure acting against us?" seems to be ultimately no, but it's a credible SF threat, and so alien to Mahit that how could she judge?

4. The depiction of the Teixcalaanli as believably obsessed with poetry and kind of blinded by their own allusions, like they would rather strike the right pose than be actually right, seemed like a believable flaw for a culture.

5. The comparisons of Station culture to Teixcalaanli culture was pretty well handled from a character point of view.

5. The author is married to Vivian Shaw, whose Greta Helsing books are delightful. I hope they are happy together.

Stuff I didn't like:

1. Teixcalaanli didn't seem particularly Byzantine or Mesoamerican (specifically Aztec) to me. Now I am a scholar of neither, and the author has a doctorate in one, so maybe this is exceeding my grasp, but the Empire in the book is too comfortable to feel like Byzantium to me, which always seemed to be shoring up a crumbling frontier somewhere after Justinian died, and that desperate pride in a threatened past seems like a central part of their ethos. Similarly both cultures were intensely religious, which is almost utterly absent from the book. And while Mesoamerican bloodletting rituals were common, they were, well, ritual, and happened for specific reasons and specific times, not "whenever seems dramatic."

2. I was a little annoyed that non binary gender gets thrown out as an aside but not developed, especially since the Aztecs may have had a very complex view of gender.

3. As noted above, the main characters are without families, which seems very odd. Doesn't 3 Reed ever call her mom?

4. The phrase "jaws akimbo." I'm not sure jaws can be akimbo, unless they are very unusual jaws indeed.

5. The themes of language and memory get place out again and again without them feeling connected. Compare A Memory Called Empire with A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar. The latter handles the themes with much greater skill (although it's not as much fun to read, I imagine).

So I enjoyed it, I will read more by her, but I am a little puzzled by the praise this has gotten. It's good, and maybe a sign of things to come, but it's not that good.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:26 PM on August 6, 2020

Oh, I also like the romance, which was romantic and believable without being sentimental.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:30 PM on August 6, 2020

Late to the party, but I think I had a .. somewhere in the middle .. opinion of this book. I can agree with both the praise and the criticism above.

In the postscript, she mentions that she started writing the novel in Cartel Coffee Lab in Tempe, AZ, in 2014. Depending on how long she was in Tempe before that, there is a very good chance I bumped into her at least in passing (I used to live at Cartel, 2012-2013).
posted by Alterscape at 9:38 PM on November 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Not long, I'm afraid - if I recall correctly, that was the time she spent six weeks learning Modern Armenian in a State Department accelerated course with several spies and a couple of incompetent missionaries. (Arkady is one of my dearest friends and also she has the best stories.)
posted by restless_nomad at 7:19 AM on November 5, 2020 [4 favorites]

It's a bummer that I can't say "I probably bumped into an author who's work I enjoyed there," considering it would be a bright spot in an otherwise dark part of my life.

At any rate, she seems like a person who is having a really interesting life, and I selfishly hope she goes on to write many more things, so I can read them. I pre-ordered the next one because I enjoyed this enough to want to know where she's going with this universe.
posted by Alterscape at 6:19 AM on November 7, 2020

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