Books

TGON Reads: A Memory Called Empire

Teixcalaan flat out feels more coherent and detailed than empires in other works of space opera.

Arkady Martine’s debut novel, A Memory Called Empire came out earlier, and I am stoked.  Asimov’s Foundation series is being adapted for television and A Memory Called Empore bears more than a passing resemblance. It even improves on the trope of the galactic empire. Teixcalaan takes the concept of the galactic empire presents in lavish detail, but without compromising the story. Teixcalaan calls to mind so many influential empires from history: the Roman empire, the Byzantine empire (Martine’s academic speciality), and a particularly strong Chinese legalist flavor. It’s a world – several worlds – where citizens and barbarians, conspirators and bureaucrats wrangle over the slightest differences in government maintenance. Everyone communicates in poetry as well, which is strange but thoroughly believable. Teixcalaan flat out feels more coherent and detailed than empires in other works of space opera. Additionally, the plot’s bouquet has notes reminiscent of a classic noir than a standard hero’s journey.  

Mahit Dzmare arrives on Teixcalaan from an outlying space station, Lsel, to replace Ambassador Yskandr Aghavn who has gone dark. She brings along with an AI based on Yskandr’s consciousness in the form of a memory device called an imago implanted in her brain. Yskander, in her brain, will serve as her brain when trying to navigate the complicated custom of Teixcalaan, or least, he should. Mahit’s second mind gets literally blown when she immediately gets escorted  to the city morgue where Ambassador Yskandr’s murdered corpse lies. From there, Mahit must solve Yskandr’s murder on her own, though she has significant help from allies like her liasion Three Seagrass, streetwise Twelve Azalea, and the alluring Nineteen Adze. Things get complicated when an ambitious general announces a war that will almost certainly spell destruction for Lsel station. 

Mahit employs all of her cunning and wits in order to navigate Teixcalaan and her save her homeworld, but she spends a fair amount of time untangling Yskandr’s personal life. Unlike Mahit, Yskandr seemed to have charmed nearly everyone he met. Mahit uncovers a tiring, James Bond level of sexual encounters of Yskandr’s, which gets a little taxing to follow after a while. Additionally, the lush ritual and symbol behind Teixcalaanli culture, while lovely, gets a little old by the story’s climax. Fortunately, Three Seagrass offers an antidote for most of these missteps, from providing comic relief by finally ordering a sandwich at mealtime to showing relatable friendship with Mahit that calls to mind alpha/beta relationships not unlike Kirk and Spock. That a romantic element arises feel neither unexpected or cloyingly sweet.

A Memory Called Empire is doubtless the best space opera I’ve read all year, and among the best science fiction. This novel combines a classic thriller plot with meticulously researched worldbuilding. And yes, there’s a sequel coming.

A Memory Called Empire cover, which features an enormous throne on a stone dais.
Photo courtesy of Amazon.com

Four stars out of five

Page count: 464

Favorite quote, “Perhaps when Mahit received a fifteen-syllable poetic epithet of her own it would involve following through on initial poor decisions.”

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