I’m going to put my cards on the table here, before going any further. I think Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire is an absolutely brilliant book. It has everything I want in sci-fi, wrapped up in one very imaginative package. It asks complicated, thoughtful questions about society, about culture, cultural appropriation, and what empire actually means. It even provides some answers, and not all from the same perspective. It does this by giving us complex characters, with their own hopes, drives and fears, and putting them into a rich, vividly imagined world. It’s a world with tensions between great political powers and those just outside their reach, and where politics can have swift and deadly personal consequences.
Yeah, I liked this one.
It starts with Mahit Dzmare, the new ambassador from a small, single system mining concern to the towering (and difficult to spell) Teixcalaanli Empire. Mahit has immersed herself in Teixcalaanli culture since childhood to prepare for this role, but been thrust into it not entirely prepared, due to the sudden demise of her predecessor. Teixcalaanli is the lead weight on the surrounding galatic sheet. Their ships are everywhere, heavily armed and exuding authority. But what the story shows us is more about their soft power. The way that Teixcalaanli culture wraps itself around and through the cultures surrounding it, so that the songs they sing are Imperial songs – or derived from them. So that the books they read are Imperial books – or drawn from them. So that, eventually, the habits of thought for these non-Imperial territories become conditioned into Teixcalaanli habits of thought. So that they see themselves as outsiders in their own cultures, so that they see Teixcalaanli as the Teixcalaanli do – as the centre of the universe. Mahit is a product of this strategy; she knows the culture of the empire she is being sent to treat with. Though proud of her own people, and what they’ve accomplished, she is riven by cracks of cultural confusion. In being proud of her differences, or conforming to their expectations of her differences, is she perhaps falling into the mode of the outsider that the Teixcalaan expect? Or can those be leveraged to her advantage? Similarly, in finding a lodestar in Teixcalaan, in appreciating its traditions, literature, media, politics – is she left little more than an ersatz portrayal of an outwith barbarian? Or is there the potential to craft a unique seeming from the blending of these values? Mahit is smart, pragmatic, incisive – and even as she’s thinking about who she is, and the way she portrays herself, those around her are doing the same, adjusting their expectations in light of her arrival.
So yes. This is a book that has a lot to say about identity. About what the conception of self entails, and how we shape ourselves in a given environment. At the larger level, it explores this by looking at the differences between the Teixcalaanli and Mahit’s station home – and at the casual arrogance and force, along with an undeniably rich history which allows the Teixcalaan to see themselves as the centre of the universe. At the micro level, it’s about Mahit, and the way she handles being very far from home, and how she starts asking and answering questions around what home actually is.
Which may sound frightfully esoteric, but…isn’t, really. It’s a big question wrapped in more immediate ones – in the day to day politics of the empire, in Mahit’s investigation into the demise of her predecessor. In the poems sung during marches by protestors, and at wakes. In the way that the Teixcalaanli see and question themselves. It’s everywhere, and that means you get to think about the big question of identity while also wondering whether Mahit will, for example, manage to survive her first night in the Teixcalaanli Empire without being assassinated.
We’ll come back to that in a second.
Before we do – I’ve talked about Mahit’s struggle with identity, as part of an exploration of one of the text’s larger themes. And it’s fascinating, multi-layered, and like all good questions, raises more off the back of itself. But I also want to talk about Mahit more precisely.
As our interlocutor, she’s fiercely clever, thinks fast and speaks fast as well. Having been flung into this shark-pool at short notice she, like us, is somewhat at a loss, and this allows us to be brought along for her journey while looking on her with a sympathetic eye. I felt for Mahit throughout. Her confusion, hurt, damage and determination all hit with the punch of precision-crafted steel. Not a super-powered avatar of justice, but a person trying to do their level best in difficult circumstances – something we can all, perhaps, identify with. I cheered her victories, and sorrowed in her defeats. What I really want to say here is that Mahit felt real. Lovingly, sympathetically, but honestly rendered, and entirely believable.
This extended out to the rest of the cast as well. The Teixcalaan have something of a stiff upper lip approach, cloaking emotion behind a façade – but in between the cracks of those Mahit runs into, you can feel a fire absolutely blazing. They are, much like Mahit, fierce people, proud of their culture and what they do – and if their empire is an engine of expansion and slow cultural infusion and homogeneity, the people within it would perhaps argue that it has to be so, and that the propagation of their civilisation and culture to the outer reaches is a necessity. Arrogance, yes, and it leaves so many questions about colonialism, and the liminality of both physical borders and ephemeral identity – but arrogance which comes well argued, and makes both Mahit and us stop and think before challenging them, as they must be challenged.
As part of that, it’s a pure delight to see The City, the capital city of the empire, whose name underscores what its inhabitants see as its central nature to the universe. It’s beautiful, connected, and in many ways vital. It feels like a real city, with its soaring columns, utilitarian government ministries, and suburbs you might not want to visit on your own at night It contrasts wonderfully with the claustrophobic, intimate spaces of Mahit’s home station, where the sky is something which happens to other people, and where their methods of cultural retention are less orthodox than the Teixcalaanli’s worldwide network.
Anyway, that’s the big questions again. But in between those, we see a mechanical beast of a station, ticking along through the centuries, with a lively cultural scene of its own, determined to hold its independence against the far larger and viciously enticing Teixcalaanli, Again, both feel like real places. Both have completely different moods, the people who we see are, on both sides, still people, but their viewpoint is coloured by their environs and their history to make their approaches totally different. The history of the Teixcalaanli oozes off the page, and you’ll find you suddenly know a lot about it, perhaps unconsciously. What we get of the station is perhaps more direct, but no less impactful. Both feel like lived in spaces, both feel like you could wake up there tomorrow, feel the clank of your feet on the station deckplates, or breathe the scent of the flowers in a Teixcalaanli night garden.
The story though. OK. It’s great. I’m not going to spoil it, but it starts with a mystery. What happened to Mahit’s predecessor? And how can she keep the charming, intelligent, beautiful, thoughtful Teixcalaanli from absorbing her station? Should she even want to? There’s…a lot going on in the answers to those questions. Some of it involves politics – the dialogue there is absolutely pitch perfect, often wry, often viciously funny. Some of it involves violence, politics by other means. There’s assassinations (as alluded to earlier!), murders, explosions and investigations. Underneath all that is a slow-boiling tension which kept me turning pages until late in to the night, because I needed to know what happened next. The story, like any good mystery, hides a lot from you, and then lets you back behind the curtain as it goes on. The pace remorselessly ratchets up, and the conclusion left me breathless.
As I said earlier: Yeah, I liked this one. There’s so much going on, and it all manages to fit together absolutely perfectly.
Short version: If you’re here for the world-building, this book has your back. If you’re here for the characterisation, this book has your back. If you’re here for a plot filled with political intrigue and occasional explosions, this book has your back. If you’re here for the big ideas, the way that this text asks them and weaves it through the narrative is incredibly impressive – reminiscent of the best of Iain M. Banks, while being startlingly original in its approach. So there, too, this book has your back.
Should you be reading this? Yes, yes you should. It’s a brilliant debut, and I’m already craving more. Go out and pick up a copy right now, read it, and thank me later.