RogerBW's Blog

A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine 25 November 2021

2021 science fiction, second in a projected series. The huge Teixcalaanli Empire is going to war, thanks largely to the actions of Mahit Dzmare, Ambassador from the independent polity of Lsel Station. But of course a war that might end with extinction that isn't going to stop everyone from playing politics…

This book feels as though Martine took what I disliked about the first book and ruthlessly stripped it away. (I do hope she didn't actually do that! My tastes are specific enough that catering to them is usually a way to lose money.) In particular, the imago-machines are largely relegated to the background (affecting the way Mahit thinks and behaves) rather than having major plot points turning on exactly how they work.

And we get lots more of Three Seagrass, my favourite character from the first book, who starts things off by spotting a request from the fleet for an interpreter to try to make sense of the weird alien communication (assuming that's what it is) and assigning herself to the job. Not that she knows a lot about it, but neither does anyone else, and at least it'll let her see Mahit again…

"The Ambassador is a linguist and translator," said Three Seagrass. "I'm the spook." She paused, entirely for effect. "We're here to help."

The adjutant, Twenty Cicada, made an entirely remarkable noise, like he'd drowned a laugh and swallowed its corpse. Three Seagrass either neglected to notice or neglected to care.

There are multiple viewpoints: Mahit and Three Seagrass, but also Nine Hibiscus the yaotlek (something like an admiral, but much less politically secure) in charge of the war fleet, and Eight Antidote, eleven-year-old heir to the Empire who rather to his surprise has retained that position after the accession of a new Emperor.

He got up. Showered—facing away from the cameras, as usual—dressed. One of his spywork outfits: grey on grey. He almost looked like a normal kid. Almost. Kids maybe wore colors. He didn't really know.

This time we get to see a bit more of the society of Lsel, and the implications of its tininess: when one of the leaders goes and does something, that's one-sixth of the executive tied up on that one task. (But also, because they're autocratic in their own domains, there's even less restraint on them than there is on the Emperor, because at least there are societally recognised methods for overthrowing the Emperor – while Lsel, which has been a space habitat longer than it's been a polity, is much more focused on doing the thing you're told right now and maybe sorting out problems later.) The factions most definitely don't settle neatly into good guys and bad guys; rather, there's the group who want this and the group who want that, and some of those wants may be compatible, especially if you're prepared to grind up some of the little people along the way.

Darj Tarats had beaten her to the best seat at the bar. Seeing him—aged and cadaverous to Yskandr's eyes, familiarly skeletal to her own memory, the burnt-clean shell of a man who'd spent the decades of his early working life in an asteroid mine, and then had become a politician, who had been a philosopher of ruining-empire and quiet revolution all that time—made Mahit's stomach flip over, a quick nauseating spike, and then settle into shimmering alert. Alive to the possibility of disaster.

And of course at the core of it there's that SF standard a first-contact story with enigmatic aliens (one of the answers about them is revealed to the reader in a prologue, which I think is unfortunate, but the implications of what could have been just a generic SF element are thought about in a way that most authors wouldn't bother with), as well as a solid narrative about relationships across power gradients.

For me, definitely an improvement on the already pretty-good A Memory Called Empire (and you should certainly read that first).

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Previous in series: A Memory Called Empire | Series: Teixcalaan

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