|A Memory Called Empire is the debut novel from Arkady Martine. It is a space opera, set on a planet called Teixcalaan which is at the heart of a large, multi-planet empire. The main character is Mahit Dzmare, the new Ambassador to Teixcalaan from Lsel, a small space station which is trying to maintain its independence from the galactic powerhouse and survive its relative proximity to a colonizing force. As soon as Mahit arrives on Teixcalaan she discovers that the unfortunate, accidental death of her predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn, was probably not as "accidental" or "unfortunate" as it appeared at first sight.|
The central tension in A Memory Called Empire is Mahit's unfamiliarity with and attraction to Teicxcalaani culture, language and society. She has two specific tools that are intended to assist her in becoming acculturated and successful in her ambassadorial tasks: a cultural liaison from the Ministry of Information named Three Seagrass and access to the memory/thoughts of the previous ambassador Yskandr via an implanted device in her head. Unfortunately, almost immediately after her arrival on Teixcalaan, her implant fails and she loses access to Yskandr and his years of experience and knowledge. So the book begins as a "fish out of water" story.
Mahit's sense of unease and unfamiliarity is mirrored by the reader, who is also being introduced to the entirely foreign world of Teixcalaan. However, Mahit has an advantage because she's been preparing for her ambassadorial posting for years, studying Teixcalaan and as a Lsel Station resident has been exposed to Teixcalaani cultural products her entire life. For the reader there are many aspects of Teixcalaan that are strikingly unusual, starting with their names, which typically have the form of "Number" combined with "Significant Noun." For example, the current Emperor is named Six Direction. It's appropriate that Ann Leckie has provided a rave blurb for this debut novel, because there are several ways that her Imperial Radhch novels resemble A Memory Called Empire. Teixcalaani names provide no information about the gender of the person they are denoting, and are so different from what we readers are used to that it can make distinguishing and identifying with the characters difficult. Teixcalaani culture is technologically advanced and its language is very different from ours; the use of poetry is central and ubiquitous. The culture is very hierarchical and highly ordered, with the Emperor being uniformly venerated but not worshiped. One of the key moments in the book involves Mahit and Three Seagrass (who is a highly skilled amateur poet herself, a prized ability in Teixcalaan) quickly forced to come up with a short poem that can be distributed widely to alert important observers (specifically a powerful frenemy named Nineteen Adze) the perilous and parlous status of our heroes as Teixcalaani society begins to fray at the edges.
Eventually Mahit (and the reader) becomes more familiar with Teixcalaan as the outlines of the plot (pun intended!) become clearer. There is an ongoing struggle to become the next Emperor (even though the current ailing one has publicly named three co-equal heirs Eight Loop, Eight Antidote and Thirty Larkspur) while the former and current Lesl ambassadors have important roles to play in resolving the situation. As one would expect, there is political instability which is sourced in the leadership struggle for control of the empire and Mahit is smack dab in the middle of it, along with her companions Three Seagrass and Twelve Azalea. The author resolves the conflict in a way that is quite surprising and rather satisfying.
Overall, I would say that A Memory Called Empire is a fantastic, intensely creative debut novel which science fiction enthusiasts who liked Leckie's Radhch and Herbert's Dune novels will almost certainly also enjoy. In my humble opinion, a bit too much of the "action" of the book is literally intertextual and involves subtle interpretations of things said (and not said) for me to connect viscerally with the novel in an entertaining or emotionally engaging way. However, I fully appreciate the difficulty of the accomplishment and applaud the author for its successful execution. This is the first book in a trilogy and I suspect I will read the rest of the books, because I want to find out what happens with Mahit Dzmare and spend more time on Teixcalaani space. So as a story, t A Memory Called Empire must be considered a success.
Title: A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan, #1).
Author: Arkady Martine.
Paperback: 462 pages.
Publisher: Tor Books.
Date Published: March 26, 2019.
Date Read: July 27, 2019.
GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆ (4.5/5.0).
OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).