Fiction Reviews

A Memory Called Empire

(2019) Arkady Martine, Tor, £8.99, pbk, 464pp, ISBN 978-1-529-00159-4


This is an adventure of the space opera kind, though concentrating on political goings-on rather than the space battles that might just be a stone’s throw away.  For a first novel this impressed me.

Teixcalaan is the world at the centre of the Teixcalaanli Empire. Since first venturing out into space the Teixcalaanlitzlim have conquered world after world, system after system, and control most of ‘known’ space.  From time to time an Emperor may launch another war of conquest to extend the empire further.  Even now you may have just begun to notice that the author has invented a host of words to reinforce that this is not our world, and the names of many of the characters prove to be unlike our own naming traditions.  There is a handy nine-page glossary of persons, places, and objects, should you occasionally loose track, as well as notes on the Teixcalaanli language.  In real life the author is a historian of the Byzantine Empire and a city planner, skills which she makes use of in telling this story.

In the Parzrawantlak Sector, just beyond Teixcalaanli space, is Lsel Station, one of a string of mining stations.  It would very much like to remain outside of the Empire whilst continuing to maintain peaceful trading relations with its biggest customer.  So the Council is not happy when the vast bulk of the Teixcalaanli ship Ascension’s Red Harvest arrives and urgently demands they send a new ambassador to Teixcalaan, especially as its captain refuses to say what happened to the last ambassador, Yskandr Aghavn.  The Council chooses Mahit Dzmare; in her mid-20s and with a love of the Teixcalaanli language and culture, she should fit in well.

The journey to the Empire’s capital takes over a month; the ship might use a series of jump-gates but it has to travel between them at sub-light speed.  Although travelling by herself, Mahit is not alone - she has a young Yskandr with her in the form of the imago device surgically implanted in her brain.  The imago is a Stationer technology (unknown to the Empire) which records all that a person does and knows; it is downloaded to storage from time to time and, when the person dies, is used to pass on their knowledge to the next person.  Although he was ambassador for twenty years Yskandr only returned the once, just five years into his ambassadorship, so the image is well out of date.  We are to learn that things were too complicated, too urgent at the imperial court, for Yskandr to risk taking three months out for a trip back home, not if he was to do his best to protect that home from the fate that might await it. Normally the integration of an imago takes about a year, with plenty of psychological help and advice, as the old memories and personality integrate seamlessly into the younger person, but the urgency of the Emperor’s demand has meant that Mahit and Yskandr have to get to know each other on the journey, and without help.

Finally arriving at the city, the awe-struck Mahit is greeted by Three Seagrass, her cultural liaison at the command of His Imperial Majesty Six Direction. Before being escorted to her ambassadorial suite, Mahit has her first appointment - to examine the body of Yskandr who had, she is told, died of an allergic reaction to something he ate.  She finds it hard to believe; assassination seems much more probable. Indeed, she soon learns that almost everyone believes the same.  What had Yskandr done?  What had he been up to?  To add to her concerns, the young Yskandr disappears from her mind; she does not know it but her imago had been sabotaged back on Lsel Station and she is completely on her own - and she desperately needs his knowledge of court intrigues if she is to avoid his fate.

Only the next day she finds herself nearly killed by an explosion then forcibly taken into the protective care of Nineteen Adze, one of the Emperor’s closest officers.  After that things hot up.  She finds herself with a private appointment with Six Direction himself and it is immediately apparent that the Emperor is both very old and very ill; although still commanding his empire, he has very little time left and some of his highest officers are aligning themselves to shortly take his place.  One Lightning is preparing to annexe more systems (including Parzrawantlak Sector and Lsel Station) in the name of the Empire, thus confirming his credentials.  Eight Loop, the Minister of Judiciary, is attempting to take over other departments to ensure his own success.  It also becomes clear that the imago device was not the secret it should have been - everyone wants to talk to Yskandr, or at least his image.

It is all about to blow up!  Mahit could not have arrived at a worse time but with the help of Three Seagrass and her friend Twelve Azalea of the Information Ministry, along with some of his more interesting contacts, can she not only survive but save her home?  As well as a rebellion on a distant planet civil conflict is appearing on the streets of the capital itself, so will any of them survive the civil war which is about to engulf the entire Empire?  Finding herself unwittingly in the centre of far too much political plotting and skulduggery, with many factions almost breaking into open war all round her, Mahit barely has time to breathe, let alone sleep.

The story is a well-written, rollicking-good roller coaster with a solid plot, and it is great fun.  The characters are well drawn, varied, and interesting.  The idea of the imago device is good and, by its sabotage, also a reminder that politics can work at both ends of a story.  I found the short prelude suffered a bit from the perennial problem of having to set the scene and it was a touch heavy, making it worth rereading once partway into the main story and then having a better sense of what is was setting up.  Once I had got past the unusual names, the politics and the city came together well.  The city felt as if some real planning had gone into how a city of the future would use technology whilst still having its inescapable human aspects.  Incidentally, like Mahit, I could not take the name Six Helicopter seriously, and as for Thirty-Six All-Terrain Tundra Vehicle, well, even the locals laugh at his name (such is the crassness of new money for you).

The book bears a “1” on the spine and inside is a note that it is part of the Teixcalaan duology - so I am guessing there is another volume to come. I am definitely looking forward to it!

Update: At the beginning of the year (2020) SF² Concatenation cited A Memory Called Empire as one of the best SF books of 2019.  Several months later, at the 2020 World Science Fiction Convention (this year as a virtual event), A Memory Called Empire won the Hugo for 'Best Novel'.  A good choice, if I may say so.

Peter Tyers

See also Mark's review of A Memory Called Empire.


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