RogerBW's Blog

A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine 27 March 2020

2019 science fiction, first in a projected series. The Teixcalaanli Empire is huge, and Lsel Station has only just managed to maintain its independence from it. So when the Empire requires a new ambassador, Mahit Dzmare is sent. Then she discovers that her predecessor has been murdered…

Lsel has a technology that the empire doesn't: its imago machines allow skills and some memories to be passed down from one post-holder to the next. But Mahit's record of the previous ambassador is fifteen years out of date, and soon fails completely. That's the least of her problems, though, as the capital starts to descend towards civil war.

I should love this. In large part I do love it. But it's not quite what it could have been, I think. There's a lot of business about the imago machines, and who among the Imperials has been promised them and how they'll abuse them if they get them, and it doesn't quite fit together. Is it the machine itself that's been promised (in which case the Imperials could just have taken the existing one from the body of the previous ambassador)? Is it the supporting neurosurgery (some of which is done by an Imperial, new to the technology, later)? Is there some other procedure which would have to be done first, in which case why didn't the previous ambassador make any arrangements for that to happen? Or not, in which case why does Mahit claim it's impossible? This is presented as a puzzle story on various levels, and this particular level of the puzzle never quite held together for me; similarly there's a scene where people are evading pursuers at a transit station which got rather confused, and I felt shouldn't really have worked as written. I get the feeling the author is less interested in delving into practicalities than in writing about people, which is fine, but the practicalities need to work too.

Arkady Martine is also an historian of the Byzantine Empire, and there's a lot of Byzantium here, even if much of the surface flash is from Mesoamerican cultures. But the people are the most important thing, and it's the interactions of the people that drive everything else, including the civil war and its resolution. Mahit is to some extent the outsider there to ease the reader's path into this culture, but she's a student of the culture and knows a lot of the basics already, as well as being a competent and practical negotiator; some of her most important decisions are about whether and when to play up to the "barbarian" stereotype, since many people will dismiss her just for not being an Imperial. Mahit likes the Imperial culture, even as she recognises the threat it poses to her home, and this is very effectively portrayed.

Twelve Azalea, Indistinguishable Courtier Number Three, except for how looking at him gave Mahit the impression of being in the presence of some other culture's impeccably observed standard of masculine beauty. She felt a little peculiar about her lack of response.

In some ways more interesting to me is Mahit's aide, Three Seagrass, a minor noble with ambitions. She's the one who knows the society from the inside, but of course her first loyalty is to the Empire. At least until that becomes a choice of which "the Empire".

Things end a bit hastily, with many important plot points unresolved, and a sequel is expected in 2021. So in summary: yes, I liked it, and I'll certainly read the next volume, but it was flawed enough that I'm not raving over it.

Some notes on Imperial names are on the Tor/Forge blog.

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