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A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Published by Tor Books on March 26, 2019

Notable for its focus on the diplomatic and political interaction of different cultures, A Memory Called Empire reminds me of the work of C.J. Cherryh. The story explores a crisis within a human empire of the far future and the role that an ambassador from a small and relatively autonomous mining station plays in defusing it.

Arkady Martine is the penname of historian AnnaLinden Weller. An appreciation of the history of empires clearly informs the novel.

Teixcalaan, homeworld of the Empire, has demanded that Lsel Station provide a new ambassador without explaining what became of the last one. The former ambassador last downloaded his memories 15 years ago, so his successor, Mahit Dzmare, is going to Teixcalaan hardwired with an imago holding very dated memories of her predecessor (an imago being a memory storage device that, when implanted into another person’s brain, causes the memories of both to integrate).

The Teixcalaanli place a high value on poetry. Martine portrays Teixcalaanli culture through the lens of its art, and particularly the intersection of its poetry and politics. Just as national politics on Earth can be understood by analyzing political rhetoric, politics on Teixcalaan can be understood by analyzing political poetry — a more difficult task, given poetry’s reliance on allusion rather than directness (not that any political rhetoric can be taken at face value).

Lsel is a mining station. Its Council has a couple of problems. One, its ships are being lost at a jumpgate. Maybe there’s a new empire in town. Two, the old empire is expanding to a sector of space that lies beyond Lsel. The annexation force will likely sweep up Lsel Station as it expands, swallowing the republic as part of the conquest. Lsel will eventually ask Mahit to help it tackle both issues.

Mahit does not know about the war plan or the alien threat when she arrives on Teixcalaan, but before long she has a couple of other problems. One is that she is being held hostage during the prelude to an insurrection, although in a polite way. The other is that her imago has gone silent, so she does not have the benefit of the former ambassador’s memories. The former ambassador may have been shocked into catatonia when Mahit learned why Teixcalaan requested a new ambassador. There may also be a more nefarious explanation for her imago’s sudden failure.

A Memory Called Empire is not an action novel, but it generates excitement with political intrigue. The aging Emperor’s hold on the Empire is threatened, leaving Mahit caught in the middle of a growing schism that may end her life just as it ended her predecessor’s. The plot plays out to a satisfying resolution that completes the novel while setting the stage for the next book in the series.

Martine’s world-building is remarkable. The Teixcalaan culture, a mixture of bureaucratic formality and aesthetic appreciation, is unveiled in intricate detail. There’s even a glossary at the end to help readers keep track of words and place names, although I only discovered it after reading the last chapter.

Mahit is smart and likeable, as are the sympathetic Teixcalaani characters who assist her in her mission. Key characters struggle with internal conflicts that emphasize their human connection despite their very different cultural backgrounds. All of this adds up to a strong start to a series that is likely to be a valued addition to the science fiction genre.


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