A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This has so far been a good year for space opera, and this is one of the best. This is a story of colonization and striving to hang on to your civilization and culture in the face of a monolithic empire that "annexes" (forcibly) nearly every star system it comes across. It's rich with nuances of language and culture, rife with politics and court intrigue, and has a neat little murder mystery at its heart. The mystery isn't really the story's focus--the overarching themes of identity and independence are--but it certainly serves to ratchet up the tension. This is a very fine book.
Mahit Dzmare is the new Ambassador for Lsel Station, a mining system where people live on stations instead of planets. As the story opens, she is bound for the City, the planet that is the heart of the Teixcalaanli Empire, to take the place of the previous Ambassador, Yskander Aghavn, who she eventually discovers has been murdered. Lsel Station is no financial or military match for Teixcalaan, but they do have a technological advantage in their imagos, implants that record the memories and experiences of several generations of previous holders so that precious knowledge is not lost. But Marit's imago is fifteen years out of date, so she is heading into this new assignment with one hand tied behind her back.
I'm sure some will say that this story is slow, and if a reader is accustomed to periodic explosions, desperate fights, and breakneck pacing, I guess it is. But the vividly realized richness of the world and characters more than makes up for it. There are many layers here, both in worldbuilding and characterization, and the author takes the proper time to explore them. (Just as an example: the character names are so gloriously alien. Six Direction, Nineteen Adze, Three Seagrass--numbers and nouns. And there are quotes at the beginning of each chapter: snippets of poetry and history, paragraphs from manuals and news broadcasts, that convey the sense of an entire complex culture without intrusive or tiresome infodumping. It's masterfully done.) But at the same time, the ticking of the plot gradually becomes louder and louder, until that moment about two-thirds of the way through the book when it explodes--and because it has all been so well set up, the reader's heart is thumping as they race to the end.
After the revolution and the installation of a new Emperor--an event in which Mahit is intimately involved--she returns to Lsel Station, irrevocably changed by what she has experienced. The next book, hopefully, will deal with that. There is also an overarching alien threat in the background, scarcely touched on in this book, which I presume will loom larger and larger as the series progresses. Don't miss it.
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