Fiction Reviews

A Desolation Called Peace

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


Oh, this is good. Award winningly good, if there’s any justice. It’s the follow up to 2019’s A Memory Called Empire and continues the story of the compromised and complicated Lsel Ambassador to the mighty Teixcallani Empire as she navigates impossible politics to try and avert an intergalactic conflict, faced by enemies she can barely comprehend, let alone communicate.

This is layered science fiction with complex, overlapping points of view set in the far future (or distant past – the narrative is entirely without reference to our own history). It leads directly from its predecessor novel, where tensions between Lsel and the Empire are kept at an uneasy arms length in the face of an incipient alien threat, and which follows Mahit Dzmore (the new Lsel Ambassador) as she negotiates her way though her new posting, where she’s considered a barbarian, and her own mind, which is stuffed with the thoughts of two iterations of her predecessor, due to her being fitted with an ‘imago’, which carries memory (an consciousness) of the dead to the living.

In this new novel, the alien threat is becoming more tangible. New Empire colonies are being attacked by enemy ships with superior firepower. One colony is completely destroyed, and all its inhabitants brutally eviscerated. Within the Empire there are factions that want war, and factions that want peace and this is played out in the tension between Nine Hibiscus, the leader of the fleet (who wants to negotiate), and one of her uppity captains, Sixteen Moonrise (who wants to attack).

In the middle of this is Three Seagrass, an information officer tasked with leading the negotiations, and Mahit Dzmore, who she drags along to help. The stakes are high – and as the novel builds, so does the tension.

One thing this novel does well is convey the utter alienness of the (unnamed) aliens, and understanding how that motivates them is an important part of the negotiations. Another is the characterisation: the author gives us multiple perspectives and yet creates some distinct, full and memorable characters. We’ve got the Empress, fighting off discordant voices in the Ministry of War, and the heir, the eleven year old Eight Antidote, with his refreshing insights and his determination to do what’s right. Then there’s Mahit Dzmore and her various enemies both in Lsel Station and the Empire, quick witted and impulsive, but faced with an impossible choice, and her putative love interest, Three Seagrass, who is strongly drawn to her barbarian friend but who feels that she’ll invariably say the wrong thing and drive her lover away, And, finally, the fleet captain, Nine Hibiscus, fighting off treachery within and danger without, and her loyal adjutant Twenty Cicadia.

That’s a lot of perspectives to cram into one novel (and there are others – the aliens, for instance, with interlude passages which I suspect are deliberately incomprehensible just to make the point that these are aliens. And because of that, early on this story is difficult to engage with. It’s probably easier if read immediately after A Memory Called Empire but otherwise it takes a while to get into the odd naming structures and the byzantine politics of the Empire and Lsel Station. But there’s a point – about a hundred pages in – when this story starts to fly and it’s worth all the head scratching and back-referring to get to that point.

Everyone in the Empire has a name beginning with a number (though I do wish the old emperor hadn’t been called Six Direction), which differentiates them from the barbarians on Lsel Station who have names which feel like jumbled sets of letters – hard to like, hard to recall. It all emphasises we’re a long way from our reality, though the sheer proliferation of characters with odd names makes it hard to follow the storyline, particularly early on.

But that’s a minor quibble.  This is the best book I’ve read for a long time and thoroughly deserves all the plaudits it will undoubtedly get.

Mark Bilsborough

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


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