Fiction Reviews

A Desolation Called Peace

(2021) Arkady Martine, Tor, £16.99, hrdbk, 496pp, ISBN 978-1-529-00162-4


This is the second half of the Teixcalaan duology, which started with A Memory Called Empire. I greatly enjoyed the first book and I was far from the only one to do so – it was cited by SF² Concatenation as one of the Best SF Novels of 2019 at the beginning of last year, before going on to win the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel and then shortlisted for an Arthur C. (book) Clarke Award.  Since then I have been looking forward to the conclusion of the story - so the burning question is how does it compare?  Well … as the author said in her acknowledgements at the end of the book, writing a second novel is more difficult and she has proved it: this just did not grab me in the same way that the first one had.

Let us start with setting the scene and the story so far.  In a far distant future mankind has spread out to many planets; space travel is achieved via jumpgates though travel between them is sub-light, meaning that journeys can take weeks, if not months.  At some point the planet Teixcalaan started to expand its interests and came to rule over other planets, thus forming the ever-growing Teixcalaanli Empire.  The books use many Teixcalaanli terms, such as ezuazacat for a member of the Emperor’s personal advisory council, and personal names take the form of a number followed by an object.  These terms take a little getting used to though they immediately make it clear to the reader that they are indeed in another world.  Both volumes come with a short glossary, should the reader loose track.

The Parzrawantlak Sector, just beyond Teixcalaanli space, is home to Lsel Station, one of a string of mining stations, and Lsel would very much like to remain outside of the Empire. When the Empire demands a new ambassador they send inexperienced, twenty-something Mahit Dzmare, who soon discovers her predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn, died in an unfortunate accident (for which read ‘assassinated’). Mahit has an imago device implanted in her brain, a device unknown to the Empire, and it stores the memories and personality of her predecessor.  However, the memories of Yskandr are fifteen years old and the device has been sabotaged. Mahit arrives on Teixcalaan to find herself more alone than she expected though fortunately she is assigned as her cultural liaison the very resourceful Three Seagrass of the Ministry of Information.  She could not have arrived at a worse moment. Emperor Six Direction is very old and very ill; he has fewer days left to him than the fingers on which to count them.  His political rivals are planning their ascensions in his place, riots and mutinies are breaking out, and there may even be civil war across the Empire.  The Emperor takes the bold step of ritually sacrificing himself on a live broadcast, naming his ezuazacat Nineteen Adze as his successor and Eight Antidote (his eleven-year-old, 90% clone) as emperor-in-waiting. Meanwhile Mahit has managed to recover the up-to-date imago device from the body of Yskandr and have it secretly replace the damaged imago, thanks to a decidedly back-street surgeon.  With her liaison’s help, she survives the political upheaval.  Furthermore, she announces to the newly appointed Emperor that, far from considering the annexation of Lsel Station, that sector of space presents a danger in that they have discovered the presence of an unknown race - potentially a terrible threat to the Empire.  All-in-all, A Memory Called Empire is a rollicking good roller coaster with a good plot.

This second volume, A Desolation Called Peace, opens a couple of months later.  Updating the reader on the story so far is always a problem; one could for example simply assume that the reader has read the first volume, already knows everything, and not bother.  One could start with a short exposition on the-story-so-far; it is crude in literary terms but it is also simple and can be very effective (the yellow text disappearing into the starfield which opens every Star Wars movie, ‘previously on Star Trek/ Stargate/ Farscape/…’, etc.).  Or one can weave the needed facts into the story as it goes along; done well the reader should be unaware of the info-dump, done not so well and it can be lumpy.  This book uses the third method and I have seen it done better by other authors.

One of the joys of the first volume was that it was a linear adventure following one character, scene after scene as the story unfolded.  All the action that occurred was seen through the eyes of Mahit even if she was not personally there (such as news feeds or updates from other characters), and this gave the story a delightful immediacy, drive, and pace.  The second volume is unexpectedly an ensemble story as we flit from character to character; it could be argued that this is necessary to tell the breadth of the story, though I am not convinced given the success of the first volume.

It opens on the bridge of the Weight for the Wheel as Nine Hibiscus, the newly appointed Commander of Fleet Commanders, is debating exactly what to do about the as-yet-unseen aliens; there have been skirmishes and it is clear that their ships are well weaponed and mostly invisible, only appearing just before they attack. Their numbers and everything else about them is still completely unknown.  Nine Hibiscus has a reputation for thinking out of the box, for winning when overwhelming defeat seemed obvious, and is possibly the Empire’s only real hope of avoiding disaster. She is not helped by Sixteen Moonrise, one of her Fleet Captains, who is secretly bypassing her and reporting straight back to the Ministry of War - and Sixteen Moonrise regards war (and possibly a glorious death in the name of the Empire) as the only option. We move to Mahit, who is back on Lsel Station.  The Councillors who sent her to Teixcalaan are not at all happy to see her back; they think that their ambassador reeks of the Empire and it would be better if she suffered an unfortunate medical accident whilst her imago device is accessed. They really do not understand that is only the actions of Mahit, and Yskandr before her, that has kept them from being annexed already.

We move on to Teixcalaan, where Eight Antidote is growing up fast and beginning to show the skills which made his ancestor-the-Emperor the great Emperor he had been. He is already aware of the scheming politics that drives the Empire, that no-one can be trusted, and that there is so much he must learn about power and how to use it if he is to rule long and successfully when his time comes.  Still on Teixcalaan, we next catch up with Three Seagrass, who has received a request from Nine Hibiscus that she needs assistance in the form of a wider perspective from the Ministry of Information rather than the narrower perspective of her own Ministry of War. Three Seagrass promptly assigns herself as a Special Envoy and goes off to join the fleet. She intends to collect Mahit en route as her skills at language will be vital if they are to enable peaceful communications with ‘the enemy’ rather than suffering a probably devastating war.  Meanwhile, the new Emperor, Nineteen Adze, is keeping a very tight eye on everything; she knows the price that her Empire will pay for out-and-out war and that their assumed victory is far from certain.

All this to-ing and fro-ing, as we flit back and forth between the main characters, takes up a lot of pages and, whilst it is well written and full of interesting detail, the story consequently moves slowly.  The Dream Team of Mahit and Three Seagrass do not even reunite until more than a hundred pages have passed.  The combination of reacquainting myself with the Teixcalaanli terms and names, the jumping around between major players for a snippet of story here and a snippet of story there, and the elements of filling in the-story-so-far, felt off-putting to me and I was left wondering where the drive and simplicity of the earlier story had gone.

In the first volume I had got used to the fact that Mahit spent a certain amount of time talking to herself, especially as that included conversations with Yskandr. However, in the second volume it becomes excessive.  It is true that Mahit needs to have many conversations with Yskandr as she is, in a way, actually two characters, but they all do it - endlessly psychoanalysing and explaining themselves.  How many times did I need to be reminded by both Mahit and Three Seagrass that they had had an argument, that Eight Antidote is only eleven and knows he needs to grow up fast, that Nine Hibiscus is worried about the whole situation and the future of the whole Empire, as well as constantly wanting the treacherous Sixteen Moonrise off her ship (and preferably spaced).  To quite an extent I enjoyed that many characters explained themselves to me as this gave them motive, it all helped them feel real as well as explaining to me their parts in the overall story and the structure of the Empire and its machinations.  However, there was just so much of it and it was not moving the story along, merely increasing the distance between the covers. Much of it was navel gazing for the sake of the page count.  Whereas I had found A Memory Called Empire hard to put down, this was far too easy.

I am not sure at what point I felt the story had finally picked up, that I was finding I wanted to keep reading, but it must have been at least three hundred or more pages into the almost five hundred pages.  That it is a lot of waiting. Looking at my shelves of books, most of the older ones are novels of about a hundred and eighty pages and they told good stories, with well defined characters, which got on with it. A Desolation Called Peace feels to me like three hundred pages of padding followed by a hundred and eighty page novel. I think it could have lost at least two hundred pages, explained just as much, and been a much tighter novel that was enjoyably getting on with going somewhere.

At a panel at the 2015 Worldcon (Sasquan in Spokane), Robert Silverberg discussed the length of stories - and he has written an awful lot of them.  Every story has its own length, he explained, and you ignore that at your peril; shorten it to fit an editor’s idea of how it should fit in a publication and it will fail because it is rushed, stretch it to fill the editor’s required number of pages and it will bloat and again fail.  It has its natural length and no other length works well.  As he recognised, Mr. Silverberg has the clout to get editors to listen to him but sadly newer authors do not.  This novel is bloated and suffers for it.&nsbsp; If in doubt, the author herself wrote ‘only 15k underwritten’ in a reference to her editor; presumably meaning he had told her it should be fifteen thousand words longer still.  Perhaps he saw topping five hundred pages as a target?  Please, I do not buy my books by the inch but for the enjoyment of the stories they contain!

An aside on the use of the ‘F word’.  I do not wish to sound prudish but I usually feel it is unnecessary and degrades the story that uses it.  There are times when it is appropriate (can you imagine the film King of Thieves without the Hatton Garden robbers f-ing and blinding at each other throughout?), but ask yourself if the characters really need to use it.  Would a high ranking officer use it publicly?  In the first volume it is used a little but it occurs noticeably more in the second volume. Is this because successful authors need to prove their success by using it?  Is it to prove ‘reality’?  To me it mostly jars and I feel the writing is weakened by it.  There might be people out there on the street who use it a lot (OK, I know there are - I have heard them often enough), but I could do without it in my books unless it is serving a useful purpose.

Despite finding the book far too long, I really enjoyed the basic story.  I like the Empire and its structure, its constant politics, and the characters.  I thought the aliens were inventive and their take on the universe interestingly different from humanity’s.I find myself in a quandary. I greatly enjoyed A Memory Called Empire but found A Desolation Called Peace a disappointment in comparison.  What of the author’s next novel?  Will I read it because I so enjoyed the first or will I let it pass due to the anticlimax of waiting for its successor.  I guess time will tell, but I am not in a rush to find out.

Peter Tyers

See also Mark's take on A Desolation Called Peace.


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