My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the sequel to last year's Hugo Award-winning A Memory Called Empire, and takes the story in a different direction. The focus is on an alien invasion, with a species whose technology can kick the ruling empire Teixcalaan's ass. But the themes of colonization, cultural shock, and identity are still very much in play, along with the added complication of just what makes a person, as seen from both the viewpoint of the aliens, the Teixcalaanlitzlim (inhabitants of the Empire) and our nominal protagonist Mahit Dzmare, the Ambassador to Teixcalaan from Lsel Station.
This is a deliberately paced, dense, chewy narrative. It took me more than a week to read it, which was partly by choice--I was taking the book to work and hauling it out during my lunch and breaks--and partly because I wanted to take it slow and give myself time to absorb what is happening. This is not a quick beach read, folks. There are worldbuilding layers here, carefully planted, that need time to tease out, and characterizations that slowly unfold like the petals of the flowers the Teixcalaanlitzlim love so much. If you start this book, please don't try to rush through it. Take your time with it, and the rewards will be immense.
But I think the main ideas and themes can be summed up here, when Mahit and her partner (and lover) Three Seagrass are trying to explain to the former Teixcalaan Emperor's heir, Eight Antidote, just why they are trying to negotiate with the aliens instead of shooting at them. Mahit has been frustrated for some time, and finally lets slip some uncomfortable truths.
Dzmare interrupted her , carefully. Like a swimmer diving into water without a splash. "Because, Your Excellency, the envoy likes aliens. Likes human aliens, at least--she told me so when she met me the first time--because she, unlike some Teixcalaanlitzlim, thinks humans who aren't Teixcalaanli might be a kind of human. It's easy to get from there to thinking that aliens might be a kind of--person. Even if they aren't human persons."
"Mahit," said Three Seagrass, like she was shocked.
But the Ambassador went on. "I don't know how they talk. I know they have more languages then the ones we've learned how to say words to them in, and that at least one of those languages isn't one a human can hear. I know they don't care about death the way we do, but that they do understand death. I know that they came back to the negotiating table, after the first meeting. And that they haven't stopped attacking the Fleet, even during the negotiations. I know all that, and not much more. But I think they might be a kind of person. And if they are..."
"If they are, Your Excellency," said Three Seagrass firmly, "there is the possibility of a brokered peace before we lose too many more Fleet ships. That is all."
This is pretty much this book summed up in a nutshell, along with some spoilers that the reader won't understand until they get close to the end. It shows the beauty and horror of the Empire, that invading culture that smiles as it tries to destroy other people's way of life. It sows the seeds of explaining an alien species whose sapience is diametrically opposed to the human intelligence it is fighting, and what one human has to sacrifice to make the aliens understand what they are doing. All this is carefully set up throughout the proceeding four hundred pages, and when the war ramps up to the final confrontation, with scenes divided between our four viewpoint characters, the suspense is nearly unbearable.
This book is fantastic, building on what happened in Memory and developing both the world and characters. To take the series in another direction, expanding the story while still holding on to what came before, is a hard thing to do, but the author manages it. Don't miss this.
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