Fiction Reviews

A Memory Called Empire

(2019) Arkady Martine, Tor, £16.99, hrdbk, 462pp, ISBN 978-1-529-00157-0


Let me start off by saying I loved this book. Really loved it. But if I had pulled the book off a bookstore shelf and idly flicked through the prologue first, I’d have put it right back. Want evidence that prologues are, as many publishers will attest, a bad thing? Here it is.

An inauspicious beginning. Daft title, for a start (though it does make some sort of sense as the novel progresses). And the opening sequence, from the unfashionable prologue to the introduction of the main protagonist, Mahit, reeks of overbloated space opera, all Councils and Empires and Stations and people with unpronounceable long names and pretentious titles. I nearly gave up at ‘Darj Tarats, the Lsel Councilor for the Miners’ seeing evidence of ‘Teixcsalaanli hunger for Stationer space’ on the second page.  But then, this is a first (published) novel, which means if it followed the usual pattern the beginning has been revised and revised and revised until all the flesh has been ripped off its bones to be replaced by cybernetics and flashy lights, with a sterile self-consciousness entirely lacking in the rest of the novel.

And so it seems with A Memory Called Empire.  Once the exposition-heavy prologue is out of the way, the pace and the characterisation picks up immediately. There’s a plot – a solid one (and that seems to be a rarity lately) – and some well drawn characters presented with very articulate, confident writing, The backdrop is empires and overthrows, alien threats and wars of conquest, violent insurrection, coups and power plays, but that heady mix never derails the focus on character.

The novel is presumably set in the far future where a multi-system human empire (Texicaalan) has ambitions on a small station-based republic (Lsel). There are hostile aliens on the border, but for Lsel, more pressing are the territorial ambitions of the Texicaalan Empire. Lsel’s ambassador, Yskandr, is missing and a replacement (Mahit) summoned. Trouble is, Mahit can’t function as well as she should because she lacks an up to date imago, a memory/personality implant that’s supposed to supply her with the essence of her predecessor, who hasn’t been home for 15 years to download the latest version of himself. Imago’s are the Lsel way of passing on skills and experience, and without one, Mahit is at a disadvantage. She soon finds herself courted by the elderly and unwell Emperor and various pretenders to the throne, and she realises that Yskandre’s close relationships with many of the key players, his unorthodox working methods and his apparent willingness to bargain with secret Lsel technology in order to secure Lsel’s independence have put Mahit in a dangerous but pivotal position. She must contend with threats to Lsel, threats to the Emperor and threats to herself and her friends, whilst working out who she (and her new implant) is and what she wants to be. Classic coming of age in times of war.

The Texicaalans speak in poetry and that adds a gentleness to the text – this could be space-opera (indeed, Ann Leckie’s quote on the cover suggests it is) but the quality of the writing raises it to another level. It is a novel about relationships, and identity and amongst all the chaos, it’s the burgeoning relationship between Mahit and her cultural liaison, Twelve Seagrass, that drives this book – always subtle, never overstated, ultimately surprising. An unexpected delight. Very highly recommended.

Mark Bilsborough

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


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