Seven Blades In Black – Music To My Ears

41dr4iarovlMy title is a pretty clever pun, but you won’t get it unless you read this book – which you should. Seven Blades in Black is the first novel in a new series by Sam Sykes. If you follow any fantasy authors on Twitter, you are probably at least aware of Sykes. He is a major personality online and can often be found by his hilarious tweets and loud voice about the genre. I enjoy his Twitter persona, but I had some difficulty getting into his first series, Bring Down Heaven, as it read too much like a transplanted Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Although his first books were funny, I found them a little shallow and quickly lost the interest to continue. However, I have wanted to give Sykes another shot since my first attempt, and his new series provided the perfect opportunity. Happily, this time I stuck to the book like glue on more glue.

My best description of this fascinating book is that it’s a cross between a western, Kill Bill, and a quest fantasy. The story is all about our protagonists, Sal the Cacophony (get the title pun now?), who is awaiting her execution. Before she gets murdered for her heathen ways, she convinces the inquisitor to listen to a last confession, during which she narrates her life that brought her to this moment. This includes how she burned down several towns, killed countless people, and was once a powerful mage. However, it is implied right from the start that her time as a mage is in the past tense, and something horrible happened to her that put her on a quest for vengeance. In line with this, we get to watch Sal hunt and murder a mysterious group of people she has on a hit list, slowly learning what they did to earn her ire as the book progresses.

The plot is engrossing, already addressing all the issues I had with the last book by Sykes that I read. Sal is an absolutely delightful character and it took me no time at all to get invested in her quest. She is funny, tough, emotional, deep, and shows clear growth throughout the book. On top of all of this, she has a kick-ass spell gun called “The Cacophony” that shoots walls of sound, fields of ice, and fireballs that had me dreaming of Outlaw Star. To top it all off, the two main supporting cast members are just as great. Liette is a spunky lady with a penchant for invention and the major love interest of Sal. Initially, I found the romance between Sal and Liette a little cliche – but at some point when I wasn’t paying attention, Sykes sunk his claws into me and I started really caring about their relationship. The final team member is Cavrac, an innocent do-gooder who you cannot help but love. His plotline is basically about him realizing the world is a lot shittier than he thought it was – but his exuberance and positive attitude are infectious and you can’t help but root for him.

On top of all of this, the entire thing takes place in a very well actualized and developed magical world. The most important things to know are that there are essentially two major warring factions in this story – the royal mages and the common working class. The concepts behind these two factions are ones I have seen many a time – a decadent and egotistical aristocratic group of mages tries to rule the world like asshole dictators and the magic-less working class rises up and forms a zealous communist militia to swarm them with numbers. However, while these are not the most unique political factions, Sykes’ interplay between the groups throughout the book is extremely satisfying and that is all that matters. Plus, his magic (which will go unexplained because of spoilers) is super cool. A lot of the magic system revolves around the costs of power and I really enjoyed it.

Although I loved the book, it had a few areas I felt could be improved. The plot felt a little convoluted by design – you constantly get the feeling that you didn’t have all the puzzle pieces to understand what was in front of you. However, while I get the sense that by the end of the series everything will come together it was a little frustrating when I finished the first book and didn’t have a great picture of what was happening and now have to wait possibly years to get answers. In addition, the middle of the book had some pacing issues. The front and end feel very directed and fast, but there is a large lull in the middle that could have used some tightening up.

Seven Blades in Black is funny, emotional, and transportive. Although the book could have used a little trimming to its 700 page count, the strengths of the book are enough to carry it through any of its shortcomings. The mysteries of Sykes’ world pique the curiosity and capture the imagination – this will be a series to pay attention to in the coming years. We at The Quill to Live definitely recommend Sam Sykes’ most recent book, Seven Blades In Black.

Rating: Seven Blades In Black – 8.0/10
-Andrew

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Perihelion Summer – Maybe Some Will Like It Hot

819ginw4kvlClimate change is an issue that has plagued me ever since I walked out of the theater after seeing An Inconvenient Truth. I was always a bit of an environmentalist, having been exposed to Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest as a small child, but this felt bigger than my seventeen-year-old brain could comprehend. The documentary was the catalyst for the veritable avalanche of books and films that would eventually lead me to working in renewable energy. It has only been in the past couple of years, however, that I really began to feel the need for art to speak about climate change. Science can only predict and describe the effects, but stories can help us figure out how we feel about it. In an effort to find stories that echo my own anxieties I happened upon this novella. Greg Egan, in his new book Perihelion Summer, captures a snapshot of anxiety and need for cooperation in a rapidly changing environment, but falls short on the emotional impact I was hoping to find.

Perihelion Summer follows Matt and some of his friends as they wait out a cosmic event aboard the Mandjet, a self-sustaining aquaculture rig. A black hole called Taraxippus is on its way through our solar system and is predicted to affect the earth in numerous ways. However, as it approaches, scientists notice it is, in fact, two small black holes, completely negating any predictions they had made. As Taraxippus passes, it changes Earth’s orbit around the sun, causing summers to be hotter and winters to be colder. In effect, climate change has been immediate and exacerbated, forcing the world to adapt on a schedule not its own.

The plot is interesting enough and centers more around the people and their reactions than it does the state of the world. Egan rightly focuses on the trials of a small group of characters, some of whom planned to be together during the event, and others who just happened to be there. It adds a personal and human touch to the events knowing that when an apocalypse does come, you will not be with who you want, but who you are around. I think this happens fairly often in stories of this nature, but Egan avoids the easy pitfalls. There are not characters that stand out as “the problem character” or “the one who will get everyone killed.” Instead, the story’s tension develops naturally through the stress of catastrophic environmental change, instead of some racist shouting that he or she will not share boat space with “the others.” And while I groaned at a specific choice that led into the third act, it became more bearable as the book came to a close. It felt like Egan was specifically using it to point something out about developed nations more so than an irrational character choice.

I did not feel any particular attachment to the characters, no matter whether they were the primary voices or just folks in the background. I do not know if the distance was my fault or Egan’s, but I did not relate to Matt as much as I would have assumed. He is a smart guy with a plan who did his damnedest to convince his family to be as well-prepared as he is. While Matt acted logically, he was driven by an innate sense of keeping those closest to him out of harm’s way, even risking himself to do so. They are all qualities that I admire, but for the life of me, I could not get involved with Matt as much as I was involved with the story. The characters surrounding Matt felt more interesting and had a human spark that was easy to care about. I cannot remember most of their names, but I remember their roles on the boat, their backstories, their anxieties and who they wished to protect. I do not know what it was about Matt, but he just did not make much of an impression on me as a reader. I found that kind of sad because it made some of the weightier emotional punches that centered on him fall flat for me.

Where Egan really nailed everything was society’s response to the crisis, particularly the adaptations offered as solutions by different cultures from around the globe, such as the domes China proposes to install over their cities. The pure anxiety and immediacy of the problem filled every page. Watching the chaotic climate take shape was like pouring milk into a fresh mug of coffee, knowing that as it swirled it was impossible to separate the two again. Egan delivered it sparingly and from a distance, with reports and rumors from the news and other seafarers their oceanic fleet encountered. It all seemed plausible, with national borders simultaneously losing their shape and being touted as more important than ever before. Every aspect of life had to change, and plans shifted constantly to meet new problems. I liked most that Egan avoided falling on empty platitudes of sustainability through technology or sitting it out. Everyone was affected, and everyone had to work to survive.

I like aspects of Perihelion Summer but it did not hit me as hard as I expected. Part of it may be that I felt it was too short, and some of Egan’s ideas about adaptation only scratched the surface of my mind. Maybe I follow some of the climate stuff too closely, and this was just another warning shot. It might be more effective to those who are not so tuned into it. I hope that is the case, because there is a hell of lot of work to do, regardless of what the business world or the talking heads say. I believe Egan did not write this to be a blueprint, but to add his voice to the conversation that needs to be had now, instead of in ten years. We need more stories like this, from different voices, different backgrounds, and with different fears. And maybe that is why I did not connect with Matt- because his anxieties were mine, I already knew them inside and out. However, the concerns of my neighbors, my family, my coworkers, and of people across the world are not something I sit with every day. Maybe that is the next step- to reach out and talk about this before it gets worse because we are all in this together. We all bring different perspectives, skills, and strengths. It’s time that we used them.

Rating: Perihelion Summer – 7.0/10
– Alex

The Luminous Dead – Dark, Bleak And Lively

I have not engaged with a lot of horror on the written page. I enjoy watching horror movies, good or bad, and sometimes play survival-horror games, but I rarely read it. I have Edgar Allan Poe’s collected works and got turned onto Laird Barron by our resident horror reader Will, but beyond that, I am lost. I think my fear is that the kind of horror novel that would pull me in is harder to find on my own, and the effort I would have to expend feels like it would not have enough of a guaranteed payoff. I want to engage with someone’s psyche and see how they deteriorate under pressures of their own making. I want to feel them spin out of control with no options besides pushing forward, edging closer to their own insanity. So when I heard this book was reminiscent of The Descent, a horror movie I adore, I had to read it. Caitlin Starling, in her debut novel The Luminous Dead, explores the depths of a character’s mind through a haunting and unnerving sci-fi trip that focuses on personal relationships to increase the horror.

Gyre Price is willing to go to any length to escape the life she’s been given. Her mother abandoned her while she was young, and now all Gyre can think about is getting off the backwater mining planet she’s on and maybe find her mother. An opportunity opens up in the form of a cave diving position. Gyre leaps at the chance, sure of her ability to overcome the risks to receive the big paycheck at the end. As she is not a caver, she fakes her resume, surgically alters her digestive tract to conform with the diving suit’s needs and hopes that those hiring will not find out. With the amount of money on the line, Gyre is sure she will have a skilled support team, guiding her every step of the way. Instead, she is stuck with Em, a woman who is unwilling to compromise and will use whatever is at her disposal to make sure Gyre gets the job done, even if it means drugging her at a moment’s notice to make her sleep or force an adrenaline rush. But Gyre signed the contract, and the only way out is down.

The characters and the atmosphere are the shining stars in The Luminous Dead. Starling’s writing allows the reader to slip into Gyre’s head with ease. She also makes sure you stay there, unable to see the world outside of Gyre’s senses. While Gyre is rough around the edges, she is relatable in her need to escape her dreary circumstances. She has a nearly indomitable will that permeates through her every action. Her thoughts center very much on the task at hand, and she is not written to impress the reader. In a refreshing twist, Em is not the opposite of Gyre. She possesses a similar will but has issues with control. As Gyre learns more of Em’s history, the more she questions her intentions, feeding into her own instability which undermines Em’s need for control. Their tensions are only exacerbated by the fact that their communications are through radio, and to the reader’s knowledge, they have never met in person. This strained relationship weighs heavy on Gyre’s frail but stubborn psyche throughout the book, taking the reader to some dark places.

The horror is subtle and creeping. Starling paces the moments of dread well throughout the book, never quite showing her hand. She relays everything to the reader through Gyre, and it becomes impossible to really know what is happening. As Gyre starts to lose sleep, small nagging thoughts become larger, and what may have been slightly weird before now feels like a conspiracy. I kept waiting for Starling to pull back and show me what was really happening, but she never did. Gyre’s journey deeper into the planet is paralleled by the reader’s dive into her psyche. I never once felt that Gyre was overreacting to the environment or Em’s decisions. It was unnerving to consistently feel the need for Gyre to look over her shoulder, but frustratingly I couldn’t make her. Her suit is designed to completely encase her body, shielding her from the elements and hiding her from local fauna. But it also means she is completely reliant on supply capsules left by divers before her. This leads to another question for Gyre’s mind to play out: who was down here first? Where are they now? And so the vicious cycle of thoughts and lack of information continues.

To add to the tension, Starling made the interplay between resources and physical needs symbiotic in a way I had not seen written before. Missing or broken equipment reduced Gyre’s food and power supply, forcing her to move faster and take bigger risks. But by doing that she depleted her body’s and suit’s energy faster. She slept less, letting her mind wander in the darkness of the cave. As this cycle perpetuates itself, her drive becomes stronger while her mental acuity loses focus, and she becomes less mindful of her surroundings. As I have mentioned in other reviews, I love watching systems play themselves out. But to watch something like that happen on such a personal level was a treat and a terror. It made me root for Gyre, but also fear the reality that she might not make it.

I have barely mentioned Em, even though she is arguably close to half of the story. And as much as I want to talk about her, I think it’s better for the reader to discover her for themselves. But in lieu of that, Starling did write one of the more dynamic relationships I have read recently. The way Gyre questions Em, oscillates between liking her, hating her, finding herself attracted to her, and bounces to dozens of other emotions that made their way into Gyre’s head about Em. The sheer volume of thoughts and feelings was astonishing. How do you deal with someone who your life depends on, but they have gone out of their way to feel unattached to you? Can you forgive someone after they have manipulated your body against your will? Can a personal relationship blossom from a clearly contractual agreement of who is in charge? Watching these two women wade through these questions was probably the reason I read all the way through the book. After years of hardening oneself against the world, the horror of beginning to know someone else, and having them know you in turn, felt stronger than the psychological dread of being trapped underground.

The Luminous Dead is a welcome respite from the galaxy-ending science fiction I am used to. It is a deeply personal story that digs deep. It had its share of slow moments, and I felt I had to push myself through at some points, but Starling stayed true to her characters. They never felt off-base to me, which in this case became more important to my experience than how often I felt fear. There are plenty of metaphors littered throughout, as if Starling left several trails of breadcrumbs, asking the audience to dive deeper on their own. It is a purposefully disorienting read, forcing the reader to explore the darkness with Gyre, but it is worth the journey.

Rating: The Luminous Dead – 8.5/10

-Alex

Holy Sister – Just Short Of Sacrosanct

91zzfwkuijl._ac_ul436_An interesting book to close out an interesting series. That’s the general gist of this review of Holy Sister by Mark Lawrence, the final installment in The Book of the Ancestor trilogy. For all of you who are waiting with bated breath for what is likely to be one of the most popular books this year, don’t worry. Holy Sister continues in the tradition of its predecessors and manages to tell a fast-paced, highly imaginative, and captivating story. You can find reviews of both of the previous books here and here. At the same time, it almost feels like Holy Sister is successful in spite of Lawrence, with him making a number of choices I find questionable (despite the book still landing on its feet).

Holy Sister tells two stories, each separated by a short time gap. The first storyline picks up where Grey left off: Nona and her friends are on the run from the powerful Noi-Guin and must escape to the ice if they want to live. The second timeline is a few weeks in advance where Nona is back at the convent and completing her final trials to become an official sister. The two timelines meet right as the much foreshadowed invasion of Scithrowl begins and the Sisters of the Ancestor must take the field to repel the invading forces. The split narrative works well, and Lawrence manages the dissemination of information in a skilled and clever manner so that the storylines remain interesting in tandem without stepping on each other’s toes. In addition, the third act where the two narratives meet is extremely climactic and has a lot of great pay off for plot lines that Lawrence has been building since book one. The action was still exciting enough to have me gripping the book in fear, and Lawrence continues his worldbuilding until the last page, potentially setting the world up for a sequel or spin-off series. Overall, the book brings about almost everything I could have wanted from the series… is what I would have said if it wasn’t for a few narrative choices that Lawrence made.

The first, and most problematic for me, is that there is a MAJOR character death off-screen between books two and three. This death murdered the forward momentum of the plot for me and caused me to struggle to care in the first third of the book. Holy Sister eventually recaptured my attention but by the end, I could not a) understand why the death needed to happen at all as it seemed to add little and take away a ton and b) understand why on Earth (or whatever planet they are on) the death needed to happen off-screen. There was so much potential for a pivotal and emotional moment surrounding this characters death that was just tossed out the window. Far be it from me to assign reasoning to Lawrence, but it frankly just felt lazy – like he didn’t want to write about this plotline anymore.

This feeling was mirrored in my other major problem with the book – the pacing surrounding Nona’s trials. I have a hard time in my mind envisioning what a traditional education at the nunnery looks like. Books one and two established a slow and luxurious pacing of how things are supposed to progress with classes and book three throws that pacing out the window in favor of going supersonic. Now, in Lawrence’s defense, he does provide a large amount of in book reasoning for why that happens: the country is invaded by a hostile nation and the end times are upon us. However, to me, it felt more like Lawrence was tired of writing this story and was hurrying me out the door. I was massively less invested in the fate of the world compared to Nona’s time at the convent, so this narrative choice did not sit well with me. On the other hand, while I wasn’t initially as interested in the invasion plot line it did surpass all my expectations so I was not too upset.

At the end of the day, Holy Sister is a strong finish to a strong series. This is easily Mark Lawrence’s best trilogy (in my opinion), and while I disagreed with some of his choices surrounding the last book in the series I can’t argue with his results. For those of you who are waiting to get your hands on the climatic finale, know that your patience will be rewarded. For those of you who haven’t read the series yet, I recommend you check it out as soon as possible now that it has stuck the landing (with only a small wobble).

Rating: Holy Sister – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Pet Sematary – Sometimes Read Is Better

Screen Shot 2019-04-02 at 9.06.19 AMStephen King’s Pet Sematary plunges readers into a deep well of terror that provides a steady supply of eerie atmosphere, horrifying happenings, and a look into their effect on human relationships. The novel wrestles with death, grief, and human nature, bleeding dark themes onto every page. Pet Sematary transformed me from a hesitant first-time King reader to a horror rookie who can appreciate the power of scares and omnipresent creep-factor. Over the course of the book’s ~400 pages, I eagerly read from chapter to chapter hoping to learn something new about the characters, the small town Northeastern United States setting, and the mysterious goings-on that drive the story to an incredibly satisfying end.

Protagonist Louis Creed moves his family from Chicago to Ludlow, Maine on the heels of a job offer at a nearby university’s medical center. On the day of their move, Louis, his wife Rachel, and children Ellie (5) and Gage (2) meet their neighbor Jud Crandall. Jud’s lived in Ludlow his entire life, and he strikes a friendly, pseudo-father-son relationship with Louis. The two drink beers on Jud’s porch and shoot the breeze almost nightly, and Jud eventually brings Louis and his family to the eponymous Pet Sematary, a graveyard kept (and spelled, notably) by children for the pets they’ve lost, many of which were killed by trucks speeding down the main road where Louis and Jud reside. It’s after this incident that Pet Sematary reaches a boiling point that only rarely cools to a simmer. Rachel is visibly shaken by the place while Ellie is intrigued and starts asking questions about death. An accident at Louis’ medical office kickstarts a series of events that intertwines his life with the Pet Sematary and turns the creepiness up to max volume. Turns out Native American burial grounds don’t take kindly to being trifled with–but that’s all I can say before giving away the book’s juiciest and scariest moments.

King’s shining prose won me over almost immediately, cementing Pet Sematary as a quality reading experience. He condenses lofty ideas into short, digestible sentences. He keeps the reader interested with effortless descriptions of Louis’ train of thought. He introduces supernatural elements so smoothly that they feel tangible. It feels dumb even typing this about an author who’s written more than 50 novels, but it’s true. Every paragraph serves a purpose, whether it’s exploring a motif or driving the story forward at a breakneck pace–there’s nothing missing here, nor is there any excess fat. King weaves his tale with Goldilocks-zone accuracy: it’s juuuuust right.

That paragon prose empowers King and his story to present vivid imagery and starkly accurate portrayals of family life, friendships, grief, death, and sanity (or lack thereof). Pet Sematary, told through the lens of Louis Creed’s psyche, offers a darkly radiant panorama of addled minds and the power of death over the human brain. As the nefarious events of the novel unfold, each character deals with them in ways that feel undeniably true to form. When death pops up around a corner, Ellie, a child, grows curious. Rachel remembers the traumatic death of her sister. Louis and Jud tell each other stories and do their best to keep one another afloat in grief-stricken waters. Every relationship and conversation in Pet Sematary rings with authenticity; never once did I feel disconnected from the novel due to a stray cheesy line or over-the-top description. Just as he does with his prose for readers, King gives his characters exactly what they need to keep the story compelling.

All that said, I thought Pet Sematary’s single shortcoming was the protagonist himself. Louis Creed is a Doctor who has a new job, a loving wife (sure, they fight once in a while), two kids, and a friend in Jud Crandall. But he’s the shallowest of the cast, to the point where it becomes easy to read Pet Sematary as a self-insert novel, the main character becoming a link between the reader and the world. Some may prefer this approach, but I wanted a multi-faceted Louis over the one-dimensional conduit who lends his senses to readers on their Pet Sematary journey. Still, this is a matter of preference, and despite my misgivings, I breezed through the book.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Pet Sematary for me was that I enjoyed it so much even without overwhelming supernatural or fantasy elements. Don’t get me wrong–they’re plentiful. But instead of a horror onslaught, King gives readers a steady drip of scares that builds to a steady stream. By the novel’s conclusion, readers are subjected to a terrifying deluge of scares and unsettling imagery. They’re effective moments, but their impact is multiplied tenfold by King’s restraint. Once again, he gives us exactly what we need–no more, no less.

I read the last words of Pet Sematary and noted a distinct connection to one of the book’s earlier moments. The novel’s final moments are as powerful as those that built to it, and Pet Sematary is punctuated by a deftly written conclusion that left me rattled, with an intense and newfound appreciation for the King of Horror.

Rating: Pet Sematary – 9.0/10
-Cole

Cold Iron – Not My Speed, But A Great Book

41spu0t5ddl._sx331_bo1204203200_I am playing a little bit of catch up this week and knocked out some books from last year I was unable to get around to reading. One of these books was Cold Iron, by Miles Cameron. Many of you likely haven’t heard of Cameron, but he is a bit of an underground superstar. While he is not well known, he seems to have a particularly fervent niche following that absolutely loves his work. This work primarily consists of a grimdark epic fantasy series called The Traitor Son Cycle (the first book is The Red Knight) which is five books long, each of which is massive. I think a lot of what makes Cameron stand out as an author is his unique narrative style and prose. It is very distinctive, favoring more detailed descriptives and intricate worldbuilding over dialogue, and it tends to be very polarizing. Unfortunately, when I read The Red Knight I found myself in the “not a fan” group of the split, but with Cold Iron, I was hoping to give Cameron a second chance because I loved his new premise.

Cameron’s new series follows the story of Aranthur, a young man attending a magical university in “The City” where he is hoping to learn to be a mage. He is from a rural farming community with fairly successful parents who saved up a bit to send him there, and he has high hopes for making a future for himself as a Magus. Interestingly, this all changes during a chance encounter on his way home for spring break, where he leaps to the defense of some innocents with a sword he bought on a whim – thus beginning his newfound journey to become a swordsman in a world of magic.

The premise of Cold Iron is as simple as it is captivating – a reversal on the “boy discovers he’s a magic prodigy” trope. The idea of someone taking up the sword in a world of people throwing fire seemed intriguing and possibly ridiculous, and I was hooked from page one. Cameron paints an impressively detailed world that takes some time to get familiarized with. He makes up a number of words and terms that you need to slowly learn, and while they do help characterize the culture, they also make it hard to read the book at any speed. The pace of Cold Iron overall is super slow and if you are not up to a thoughtful meandering book this might not be for you.

The characters are also very deep. Aranthur is a complex bundle of emotions, often favoring curiosity and manners over all else. He feels like a gentleman scholar, who is unsure and unconfident due to his young age, and he is an easy protagonist to rally behind. The side cast is all also deep and varied, which helps a lot with the slow pace of the book. By this I mean, although you spend a huge part of the book sitting around tables listening to the cast small talk – there is enough variety and complexity to the personalities in play that conversations are engrossing despite being about nothing. However, all of these positives still didn’t help me get past my principle problem with Cameron’s work – I simply do not like his prose.

To be perfectly clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Cameron’s prose, it is just not to my personal preference. His narration is very slow and meticulous, preferring to spend a lot of time diving into the thoughts and observations of his characters. I feel he likes to focus on the small things going on around his characters, the minute coming and goings of people going about their daily tasks. This style does an incredible job painting a very vivid picture of his characters, but probably due to my ADHD, I tend to find it slow and boring. Mechanically his writing is very impressive, and just because I didn’t like it does not mean you (my reader) won’t.

I didn’t finish Cold Iron. I got about 70% of the way through because I was heavily invested in the story before the slow pacing of the narration just calcified my interest in continuing. If you are the kind of person who lives for dialogue and fast-paced action in a series, you might have the same issues I did with Cold Iron. But, if you are ok with taking things slow, and find the idea of full immersion in a medieval European fantasy setting appealing, then I definitely think you should pick up this book despite my reservations. Cold Iron has a story, and a premise, worth reading – even if that reader isn’t me.

Rating: Cold Iron – 6.5/10
-Andrew

A Memory Called Empire – Foreshadowing Success

51dp2bmink2lThe 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
-Alex