The word “Empire” is gaining a lot of traction these days. It shows up in the usual places such as fantasy novels and certain political circles, but I am finding myself hearing it more casually in conversation, tv shows, and YouTube videos. Now, I recognize that my particular tastes are not average, in that I often seek out media that provides some commentary on the state of the world. It could be that I just have my ear tuned to that frequency, but there is something alluring about the word empire. It is often employed to describe a large state in the past, typically in hushed tones of “we don’t do that kind of thing anymore.” It spoke to that retrospective context we often assign the word, but in a way that reinforces the conscious forgetting of how empires form. A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine, examines an individual’s relationship to their national identity through an intricately paced mystery story, all while seamlessly blending intricate worldbuilding and a compelling narrative.
The story follows Mahit Dzmare, who represents Lsel, the independent mining station where she was raised, as their newly-appointed ambassador to the Teixcalaanli Empire. Her predecessor is dead, and no one will admit whether it was an accident or murder. Unfortunately for Mahit, the leadership of the empire is also unstable, with open questioning of who is to succeed the current ailing emperor. Mahit enters the capital lost, uninformed, and nearly alone as she tries to figure out why her predecessor is dead and what promises he may have made to those in power. There is not much time as the Teixcalaanli grow bolder in their need for expansion, and her station’s independence might be at risk. With time against her, what will Mahit sacrifice for her people’s sovereignty?
Martine writes with astounding depth. Her use of language contrasting the Teixcalaanli to Mahit’s home culture is inspired. I cannot recall a time I felt so purposefully lost in a culture. I felt like an alien, and I think that was the point. Martine made the Teixcalaanli feel so different from the main character and the audience, without necessarily pitting the reader against them. I feel this is a hard thing to do, especially because it is easy to hate on a “big bad empire” if you are sympathetic to the ambassador of a smaller nation. From the names of the empire’s citizens to their job titles, Martine has created names for almost everything in the Teixcalaanli world. On top of that, to be Teixcalaanli is to be civilized. Everyone who is not a citizen is considered a barbarian, regardless of the fact they are all space-faring civilizations. What makes the separation even more intriguing is the lack of disdain behind word barbarian. Never did it feel overtly malicious, just characters consistently pointing out the obvious that “you are not one of us, nor can you ever be,” reminding Mahit and the reader of their place within the grand scheme.
Martine makes the dynamic even more engrossing by meshing worldbuilding with the character’s narrative. The world is not just alien to the reader, as Mahit is also trying to grasp the reality of a culture she has only ever studied up to that point. It is a slow realization, but Martine paces it well. Mahit is lost upon her arrival to the capital, but confident in her abilities. In her mind, there was clearly a reason she was chosen to be entrusted with the ambassadorship, but as she spends more time with the empire, the less she feels she truly knows. Her liaison, Three Seagrass, is attentive, helpful, and her point of access to understanding the intricacies of Teixcalaanli political life, but she can only provide so much. This choice to have the reader discover the world as Mahit does engrossed me immediately in Mahit’s story. I felt I was relying on her to let me know how she thinks things work. When Mahit finds out she may have been wrong or used the language in a way that did not convey her meaning accurately, I did too. It made her fallible, but not necessarily unreliable.
The writing alone would have carried me through the book even if the story had been lackluster. Martine however, had other plans and wrote a tale of political intrigue that kept me on my toes. My brain was already firing on all cylinders adjusting to the language of the Teixcalaanli, so I felt I had to really work to stay on top of all the political intrigue and mysterious deaths. This was not a bad thing- it honestly added to the general anxiety of her situation. It was impossible to figure out who to trust, who might try to kill Mahit, or whether any of her plans would matter in the face of major political upheaval. It felt like Mahit was pulling a tightly but unevenly wound spring from a sink’s pipes. You just never knew when it would spring free and launch at you, or when it would require a little more effort to dislodge the next piece of the puzzle. The narrative never felt like it dragged, and I always wanted more. It was tiring only in that the reader is along for the ride when it comes to the enormous amount of work Mahit had to do.
There are a lot of great ideas that Martine plays around within this book, particularly examining the meaning of personal identity, empire, and civic duty. Martine never really gives an answer but does an excellent job of opening the discussion. Mahit’s characterization reaches above and beyond the task, Martine seems to have set out for her in terms of theming. Mahit perfectly encapsulates the “between two worlds” narrative often employed in fish out of water stories. I feel these stories entertain the idea that the character can transcend the bad parts of each and combine the strengths of two cultures to succeed. Instead, Mahit begins to lose track of where her loyalties lie. Clearly, she should do her best to serve her own people, but already she feels outcast from them for having studied the ways of Teixcalaanli. When she arrives, her studies keep her afloat, but she is viewed as an outcast there as well. In addition, both sides view Mahit alternately as a tool for an obstacle to their own ends, further separating her from any grander calling beyond “solve the problem directly in front of you.” It was incredibly alienating and made it hard to trust any of the other characters involved in the power struggle.
Martine added to this feeling by starting each chapter with a piece of poetry, a communique, or a snippet of history from within the Teixcalaanli and Lsel cultures she created. They served to highlight the differences in how these two peoples thought about themselves and the world they inhabited. They were never complete thoughts either and served the worldbuilding more often than the narrative. I did not care for them at first because they did not push the narrative, but when I started to pay more attention to them, the harder they were to ignore. It never felt like they built to a synthesis, instead always showing two very different worlds. It lent a sense of urgency and doubt to Mahit’s goals. How would the smaller Lsel station benefit from being integrated when they do not seem to fit? Who would they become based on how they were taken in by the Teixcalaanli? It is an ominous setup, and one I am keen to see play out in the sequel.
A Memory Called Empire is easily one of the strongest debuts I have read. The blending of worldbuilding into the narrative and characterization was refreshing, even though it required a lot of work on my part. The only bumps along the road I encountered were a few awkward dialogue scenes that broke the tonal immersion but never pulled me out. The ride to the end was thoughtful and intense, finishing with one of the most surprising and well-earned conclusions I have read in months. Everything converged together for a grand finale that left me with my mouth agape and made me immediately crave the sequel. If you are just looking for a tension-filled political space opera, this book covers that ground well. Martine, though, does so much more, so eloquently and in ways that cannot be ignored, forcing the reader to pay attention to the details. It is forceful, poetic, introspective and tragic. I can not recommend this book enough.
Rating: A Memory Called Empire – 9.5/10