A Memory Called Empire (Book Review)
by Arkady Martine
Science Fiction / Political Thriller
4 / 5 Stars
I struggled to write this review because on one hand I’m in awe of the world-building and attention to detail this novel creates, but on the other, I found the plot lacklustre and the characters somewhat uninteresting.
The plot is as follows: 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—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.
Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan's unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.
For me, this is one of those books where the narrative craft on certain aspects far outweighs other weaker elements. I definitely enjoyed the novel, but there was something too methodical about it for me to love it. The novel had exciting moments, but I felt like I was reading them from a distance rather than be immersed in the situation.
Perhaps it’s because I found the characters a little dull. Don’t get me wrong, if being an ambassador is your deal, then, by all means, live your best life, but it doesn't spark any joy for me. As such, because I prefer to read about rebels and dissidents over politicians, I couldn’t identify with Mahit on any real level. Three Seagrass was also a rather boring counterpart and while there was some small attempt to create a bond between them, it lacked any real intensity or passion. And because we, and Mahit, didn’t know Yskandr, I didn't really care about figuring out who killed him and why.
I also had trouble with the stakes. Because we don’t see the external threat in action, we barely see the Station, and Mahit has only been on the planet for a week, I didn’t really grasp why there was such upheaval. Are we supposed to be upset that an empire, a word with negative connotations, is being disrupted? Because I wasn’t sure what real benefits the empire provided to the people; I didn’t share Mahit and Three Seagrass’ compunction to work to save it or how saving it would save the Station’s autonomy.
Yet, Martine did just a fantastic job building this planet and its people. From the book jacket, we learn Martine is a historian and a city planner, and it’s evident she’s applied these skills to her novel. Teixcalaanli is immensely thought-out and the little details about the culture struck the perfect balance between alien and relatable. I loved the naming convention - that was by far one of the most fascinating and interesting elements (my Teixcalaanli name would be Eighteen Hand Grenade) - and the technology was fascinating. The importance of poetry in conveying political intention and entertainment was also a very intricate and complex system that was thoroughly impressive in its design.
The novel did have some funny moments, namely around the naming convention, and while I said the characters were a little dull, I didn’t dislike any of them. Twelve Azalea was probably my favourite.
Overall, this novel for me is like most works of art in a museum. While I appreciate the talent behind the craft, I wouldn’t hang it on my wall. I definitely enjoyed the novel, I didn’t love it and I probably won’t read the rest of the series. I do recommend it, though to whom, I’m not sure. Historians, who love sci-fi, perhaps?