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A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsHugo Award winnerIn the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute discusses the classic science fiction trope of the galactic empire as a “necessary invention,” and “an imaginative framework which could accommodate any number of ‘Earth-clone’ worlds on which writers might deploy ordinary human characters in confrontation with any imaginable social and biological system.” It’s a trope that got what you might call its first real intellectual workout in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, and it’s easy to see the enduring appeal of stories set against vast interstellar empires. After all, what has human history been except an ongoing cycle of the rise and fall of great civilizations?

A Memory Called Empire explores this fascination with the concept of a culture and a civilization too big to fall but in constant danger of doing it anyway. But rather than playing the detached observer, Byzantine historian Arkady Martine — real name: Dr. AnnaLinden Weller — makes her story personal, through the eyes of richly drawn characters navigating an ever-shifting political landscape of propaganda and power. It’s frankly incredible that a novel this layered and satisfying in its humanity as well as narrative complexity was Martine’s debut, but I suppose that just goes to show you what can happen when a writer needs to burn off excess steam after completing their Ph.D. A Memory Called Empire does everything science fiction at its very best manages to do in ways other literary genres don’t, examining the human condition through multiple lenses; science, history, and imagination. It sweeps us into a lush, interstellar future where we get to take a good look at ourselves without judgment. It’s exciting, witty, suspenseful and a real kick in the pants.

It all takes place in a deep-spacefaring future, in which the empire of Teixcalaan, governing from a majestic and very Trantorian city-planet called the Jewel of the World, is facing internal unrest, rebellion from outlying colonies, and an unknown alien threat from its most remote frontier.

Lsel is a distant mining station of some 30,000 inhabitants on the empire’s outskirts, that has managed to retain its independence. The story opens as our protagonist, Mahit Dzmare, is appointed as Lsel’s new ambassador to Teixcalaan and very hurriedly dispatched to the city, where her first duty will be to find out why the previous ambassador was killed. You would think such a post would be intimidating, to say the least, but Mahit relishes the opportunity to undertake a job that, by her own description, is everything she’s always dreamed of. Through many years absorbing herself in the empire’s culture, in particular the poetry that comprises so much of its artistic, literary, and even political expression, Mahit has a powerful affinity for Teixcalaan, even though her job is going to involve doing all she can to prevent the empire from annexing her home.

Mahit’s predecessor, Yskander Aghavn, did indeed meet with foul play. Finding out why, or by whom, will not be easy. Mahit has one particular disadvantage. In the back of her head, she carries an “imago”, an implanted backup of Yskander. This is a technology that Lsel has managed to keep secret from the empire. But the backup of Yskander she carries is a full fifteen years out of date, and no one knows why he was never able to return to the station any more recently to refresh it. So not only is the imago just as ignorant of Yskander’s own activity in the city prior to his death, but even worse, when Mahit is allowed to examine Yskander’s remains, the encounter causes the imago to malfunction and go dark, leaving her with no assistance in navigating the treacherous political waters she has been plunged into.

No assistance, that is, other than her diplomatic liaison, Three Seagrass. Seagrass will become at first an uneasy ally, but ultimately an invaluable confidant and friend to Mahit, as Mahit is propelled into a fraught succession battle for the imperial throne — a conflict into which she will discover Yskander very rashly inserted himself. As situations escalate, Mahit is taken under the protection (protective custody might be a more accurate term) of one of the emperor’s close advisors, Nineteen Adze, and she will learn that Yskander was quite willing to overstep the bounds of his normal ambassadorial duties.

Martine’s world building is both unconventional and masterful. From the beginning chapters, when Seagrass gives Mahit a guided tour of the city by reciting one of the empire’s epic poems, we’re very quickly acquainted with the world through an understanding of the role art and language play. (This approach was inspired largely by Martine’s own historiographic studies as well as learning Armenian.) The text of the novel is peppered with a number of deliberately difficult-to-pronounce words from the imperial language, and Martine is simply confident enough in the committed SF reader’s experience with alien words that she simply trusts us to keep up, and we can, very easily. The poetry, novels, and films of Teixcalaan are everything; art, political discourse and propaganda, even a chief tool of cultural imperialism. The empire has engaged in annexation wars, but as we learn, such a war has not been waged in decades. Instead we can see how, despite Lsel Station’s determination to remain independent, the empire already has its hooks in. Mahit herself grew up so obsessed with the language that she wrote her own ciphers in it. Stories and movies from the empire are so popular among the station’s youth that they’re creating their own fanfic. They’re all, for all intents and purposes, already colonized.

But the empire has a way of creating this longing in its noncitizen subjects, then never entirely fulfilling it. They may let you onto the guest list, but you’ll never truly be one of them. Mahit finds this out firsthand in a brilliant scene set during the first major imperial function she attends. A popular orator recites an epigram for the court that is just a little too politically provocative for the emperor’s liking. The emperor responds by awarding his prize to a very mediocre competing poet, whom the other poets in attendance mock by riffing on their winning piece. There is a rich undercurrent of humor going on here: Mahit’s first realization that she’ll never truly belong to the culture she aspires to comes as she’s witnessing what amounts to this world’s equivalent of a rap battle, forcing her to accept that her own freestyling skills will never be as good.

It’s a humorous touch that is simply one part of a multifaceted adventure that delivers immersive storytelling to spare. I keep trying to put my finger on what specific elements make A Memory Called Empire so satisfying, and I keep failing, because the vision here is so expansive. Courtly intrigue; a rogues gallery of friends and foes, some of whom may be both at once; a tactile world with a deep history that doesn’t require an infodump of backstory to convey; action and tension and the fate of a whole civilization on the brink; and all of it anchored in a heartwarming bond of friendship between two characters who effortlessly inspire your love. There are a lot of books out there that deliver an entertaining time, but this is one of the rare ones that will linger long in the memory.

Followed by A Desolation Called Peace.