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Teixcalaan #1

A Memory Called Empire

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Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn't an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan's unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.

462 pages, Paperback

First published March 26, 2019

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Arkady Martine

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Profile Image for chai ♡.
321 reviews150k followers
August 8, 2022
There is a scene near the beginning of A Memory Called Empire that I remember reading with so much clarity. In the scene, the protagonist Mahit Dzmare, ambassador from the (tenuously) independent Lsel station, is introduced by her cultural liaison to a crowd of Teixcalaanli literati during an imperial banquet:

“She could follow about half of the allusions and quotations that slipped in and out of their speech. It made her jealous in a way she recognized as childish: the dumb longing of a noncitizen to be acknowledged as a citizen. Teixcalaan was made to instill the longing, not to satisfactorily resolve it, she knew that. And yet it wormed into her every time she bit her tongue, every time she didn’t know a word or the precise connotations of a phrase.” (128)

I was immediately struck by a powerful sense of recognition. These few sentences handed me a vocabulary for a hitherto inexpressible private reality: standing “in the midst of the sharp chatter of ambitious young people” (128) who look nothing like me, who speak effortlessly in a language that was not native to me and was therefore still twisting my tongue into spirals, and being aware, to an almost abject degree, of the incalculable distance that separated me from them. This is a feeling I would come to know, as a post-colonial immigrant student, as a hard and brutal thing: the engulfing sense of being somehow diminished, of being rendered abruptly unreal, disconnected—and, in some inconsolable way, depersonalized. I felt seen in ways I found difficult to explain a few years ago, when I read this book for the first time.

The conflicts of displacement and (un)belongingness are still open and devastatingly familiar to many immigrants today. I’ve never had any illusions about being unique in this. But, years later, it is not the aching deprived longing for acknowledgement from the center—the “dumb longing of a noncitizen to be acknowledged as a citizen” in Mahit’s terms—that smashes into me as if it is newly wrought. It is rather the icy realization of how this longing ultimately fulfills an important function for empire: it is a form of internalized belief in imperial superiority constructed and maintained by the center to embed and ensure the subordination of the margins. It is, in other words, simultaneously a reminder that we will never be good enough to reach complete and unconditional belongingness—that we are always going to be marginal—and an invitation to strive for it anyway.

This is, to borrow some of the author's own words, both “the seduction and horror of empire.” I understand this today in ways I couldn’t wrap words around two years ago: that this longing for belonging—precisely by virtue of being subtle, pervasive, conditioned, and falsely innocuous—is perhaps the most effective and enduring brutality of imperialism, and furthermore, that the work of decolonization cannot, and will not, begin without first taking a long, hard look at one’s own hunger for the center.

**

This is, of course, easier said than done: to confront one’s own colonization is an act like forcing poison from a wound: painful, no matter how utterly necessary. This is a central point of tension in A Memory Called Empire. The protagonist, Mahit Dzmare, arrives as an international ambassador to the imperial City of Teixcalaan with clear-cut instructions from her home Station of Lsel: investigate the sudden death of her predecessor, advocate for Lsel citizens, and—at whatever cost—prevent the absorption of Lsel into the all-devouring empire of Teixcalaan. This arrival, however, has the added effect of setting into motion a reckoning over Mahit’s self-confessed infatuation with Teixcalaanli culture, her internalization of Teixcalaanli ideas of superiority and inferiority—what constitutes “citizens” and “barbarians” for Teixcalaan—and the dangerous implications those have for the safety and continuity of Mahit’s homeland and culture.

Mahit grew up with dreams of Teixcalaan. She spent her youth studying every inch of Teixcalaanli culture, memorizing Teixcalaanli poems, and trying out the rhythms and cadences of Teixcalaanli language until they moved the right way on her tongue. Her position as an ambassador was, in fact, obtained due to this cultivated familiarity with Teixcalaan, a closeness disdainfully characterized at one point in the novel by Mahit’s superiors as a “xenophilic love” for a heritage that was not their own, a diseased way of thinking that made her both undeniably useful for her homeland of Lsel—and potentially dangerous. However, this dream Teixcalaan—the Teixcalaan Mahit hankered for—quickly slips away when confronted with the reality of Teixcalaan, the Teixcalaan that is unfiltered through language and literature and poetry, the “poison gifts” of empire (7).

Immediately upon her arrival, Mahit hits several walls of institutional indifference, hostility and neglect that demolish, in increments, the illusion (and possibility) of belongingness. Despite her aptitude for Teixcalaanli literature that equaled that of any Teixcalaanli-born citizen, Mahit becomes increasingly aware of endless chasms opening up between her and the rest of the Teixcalaanlitzlim. The dose of othering delivered to Mahit in the scene that opens this review is replicated both in text and in conversations throughout A Memory Called Empire. The first Teixcalaanli citizen Mahit meets upon her arrival in Teixcalaan is her cultural liaison, Three Seagrass, who, Mahit immediately notes, wears a glass device over her left eye called “a cloudhook”. Only imperial citizens are allowed access to this cloudhook, and by extension, to the imperial information network that flows through it, and which facilitates the lives of Teixcalaanli citizens, connecting them to the empire and to each other. A few pages later, Three Seagrass pointedly reminds Mahit: “You don’t have a cloudhook. You can’t open some doors, Ambassador. The City doesn’t know you’re real.” (31) The City doesn’t know you’re real. Mahit is quite literally invisible in the eyes of empire, her erasure so rigorous that she is no longer real. Thus denuded of that single device which singles belongingness, visibility, and legitimacy, Mahit is forced to walk through Teixcalaan shaped and reshaped every single moment around the knowledge that she is not a citizen, and therefore she is not real. It is a realization Mahit has to constantly deal with, an adjustment to be made over and over again. This displacement is further intensified by the fact that Mahit’s positionality as a “barbarian” in Teixcalaan’s eyes not only disallows her access and participation in imperial rites and rituals, but also exorcises her from the category of “human” by Teixcalaanli definition: “the physiologies of noncitizens […] are quite different from human people! Not that I’m implying Lsel Station isn’t human, Ambassador, nothing of the kind. But I am insatiably curious” (41).

This deliberate withholding from belongingness is also effectively reproduced in Teixcalaanli language which is filled with labyrinthine twistings and symbolic valence imbued into the smallest epithet, the smallest gesture (“Allusions and references were the center of Teixcalaanli high culture” (53)). Faced with the uncomprehending and incomprehensible gaze of Teixcalaan, and her own helpless sense of inadequacy, Mahit often has to rely on her cultural liaison, Three Seagrass, to translate Teixcalaan to her and translate her to Teixcalaan. Over time, this dependency brings home to Mahit most sharply, most potently, the fact that Teixcalaan-born citizens will always be more Teixcalaanli than her, no matter how high she scored in Teixcalaanli examinations, or “how much poetry she memorized”. In fact, trying to be up close to Teixcalaan only reminds Mahit of her distance from it, longing highlighted by the specter of its unattainability. In other words, Mahit will never be Teixcalaanli, and she will “never stop knowing it.”

This endlessly complicated dynamics of fragmentation is made even more fraught in the novel by the fact that Mahit seems to have a growing acute sense of its presence and implications. She is not a racialized subject who has swallowed empire’s ideals and assertions as incontrovertible truths, nor is she blind to the seduction of empire and to the dazzling inappropriateness of falling for it. “Teixcalaan was made to instill the longing, not to satisfactorily resolve it,” (128) Mahit indeed knew that, and throughout the novel, she heartbreakingly attempts to transform that longing into an inoffensive fact that she can harbor within herself without either disowning it or suffering from it. “Be a mirror,” she desperately repeats to herself at one point, “be a mirror when you meet a knife; be a mirror when you meet a stone. Be as Teixcalaanli as you can, and be as Lsel as you can, and—oh, fuck, breathe. That too.” (107) Perhaps nowhere else is this struggle clearer in the novel than in this desperate, broken mantra: the soul-crushing difficulty of negotiating liminal spaces and fraught hyphenated realities, made sharper by the absolute necessity of it for the sake of one’s survival.

At the close of the novel, to be truly Teixcalaanli seems more and more an irretrievable possibility, and the longer Mahit stays in Teixcalaan, belonging to Lsel becomes just as inconceivable, as if Mahit had already crossed to the other side of some tremendous divide, a zone of no-return. Mahit eventually concludes with an aching finality that “nothing touched by empire stays clean” (361), a poetic confession of the agony of trying to articulate the nuanced reality of being “Other”, of being condemned to an existence in which you are neither here nor here, too much of this and not enough of that. For Mahit, this reckoning rings with layers upon layers of difficult choices, every single one of them infused, inconsolably, with a sense of loss, the knowledge that Teixcalaan and Lsel will always fight for the same room inside Mahit’s life, half of her both at war with and longing for the other half: “Mahit felt that way now, as Lsel came back into the center of her ship’s viewports. Very distant. A certain kind of free. Not, in the end, quite home.” (370) At bottom remains for Mahit the fact that once you leave, you can’t really be home again; not all the way anyway, no matter how hard you try. Once you leave, something is lost and I don’t know if you can ever find it again. If you’re lucky, like Mahit, you might “never stop knowing it,” for it is precisely in that knowingness, no matter how painful, that a reckoning with (if not outright repudiation of) any diseased longing for empire—the first gesture at real decolonization—can truly begin.
Profile Image for Niki Hawkes - The Obsessive Bookseller.
710 reviews1,148 followers
May 3, 2019
[2.5/5 stars] I have to take a moment to explain how excited I was to dive into this book. I was expecting rich culture, a complex plotline, and fascinating characters. And while I think all those components made an appearance, they weren’t nearly as amped up as I was hoping they’d be.

In fact, 85% of the story was pure dialogue and explanations. It TOLD me about this cool alien world and society, but it often neglected to SHOW me. And that feels like a colossal opportunity wasted. Incidentally, I felt the exact same about Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh – cool concept (so many good ideas to play with), interesting characters (who lacked depth), and sluggish plots (where not much happens, but we discussed a shitload). Maybe that’s the M.O. of this specific sub-genre though and I’m just not equipped to appreciate it. Or maybe I’m just too impatient and many of these things will develop as the series continues. Whatever the case, I tend to expect sci-fi’s to have more action, world-building, or at the very least, some deep character connection. None of which were abundant here…

I thought the political intrigue and overall mystery of the story were interesting, but it took so long to learn new things about it that, by the time I got to the last 10% of the book, I was so disengaged and bored that I no longer cared. It was a major struggle to finish. And for whatever reason, the eventual revelation felt over simplified for such a seemingly sophisticated society.

Part of that declining interest had to do with the main character. She thought about a lot of stuff, but she didn’t make me feel anything, and I remained totally at arm’s distance the entire time. Coming off of Tiamat’s Wrath by Corey, my expectations were definitely inflated. For a book largely focused on character immersion and very little else, the characters need to shine, and for me they just didn’t.

Series status: I’ve bookmarked the sequel on Goodreads, but I honestly don’t think I’m going to pick it up. It just didn’t tickle my fancy.

Recommendations: if you’re in the market for a sci-fi with a cool concept and a shit-ton of dialogue and discussion, this is a good pick (I’m being snarky, but I acknowledge that sometimes a talky novel is just what the doctor ordered). I personally craved more action and world-building (seeing it, not hearing about it), so I was left wanting, but I can see the intellectual appeal this novel might bring to some. I also seem to be in the minority among some reviewers I really respect, so there's that. :)

Via The Obsessive Bookseller at www.NikiHawkes.com

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Beholder's Eye (Web Shifters, #1) by Julie E. Czerneda Foreigner (Foreigner, #1) by C.J. Cherryh Stardoc (Stardoc, #1) by S.L. Viehl Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1) by Ann Leckie Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, #1) by James S.A. Corey
Profile Image for carol..
1,501 reviews7,547 followers
August 7, 2019
With reservations.

What do you mean, what do I mean? There's something about it--as good, as inclusive, as remarkable as it is--that just fails to miss me. Possibly it's the empire-building genre. At any rate, this is probably what Alastair Reynolds was going for in The Prefect, only this was so much more tightly plotted, with better characterization, that it was far more satisfying. Perhaps my reservations are due to lingering disaffection, because Martine does exactly what I expected from Reynolds: she takes a very personal mystery--the death of a predecessor--and links it to empire-shaping events.

Martine does beautifully at giving the sense of two different cultures, the behemoth of the Empire, and the small space-station, Lsel, that Mahit represents. Characterization is also done well, with both main and side characters proving very interesting, naturally developing as Mahit gets to know them and as external events force different interactions. World-building is complex, but not-overly obsessed with extraneous details (cough, cough, you know who I mean). Writing is phenomenal. My hesitation would be the ending , somewhat troublesome ethics, and the technology

It's not gripping, in the on-the-edge-of-your-seat kind of thriller, but it is gripping in the sense of I-really-don't-want-to-put-this-down. That alone deserves a lot of credit, but to integrate an intriguing female lead, cultural conflict, a mystery, political machinations, and even a touch of romance is incredible. Very impressive, and I'll be looking forward to the next. Will I add it to the library? We'll see.

Update: I did add it to the physical library. High potential for re-readability and great sale on the hardcover version.
Profile Image for Petrik.
654 reviews39.7k followers
May 10, 2019
ARC provided by the publisher—Tor Books—in exchange for an honest review.

Easily one of the cleverest sci-fi debuts I’ve read so far.

A Memory Called Empire is Arkady Martine’s debut novel and the first installment in the Teixcalaan series. Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in Teixcalaan only to find out that the previous ambassador from the same mining station as hers has died. Contrary to her belief, nobody wants to admit that his death wasn’t an accident, and now it’s up to Mahit to uncover who’s behind the murder. At the same time, she also has to save the place where she came from—Lsel—from the Teixcalaan expansion. A Memory Called Empire at its core is a murder mystery story. If you start this book expecting tons of action, there’s a chance that you’ll be sorely disappointed. The main charm of the book lies in Mahit’s challenges in navigating the unfamiliar culture of Teixcalaan; it’s a book heavily centered on politics. In my opinion, this novel was a bit reminiscent of The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. The main difference between the two is that while I disliked The Traitor Baru Cormorant, I highly enjoyed reading this one due to a superb prose that clicked with me.

“The problem with sending messages was that people responded to them, which meant one had to write more messages in reply.”


It did, however, take me a long time to be wholly invested in the main character; almost 50% into the book truthfully speaking. I wasn’t really impressed by Mahit’s character at first, and the fact that the story was almost entirely told through her perspective actually made me think that the book wasn’t working for me. However, I was gladly proven wrong. The second half of the book did more than redeem what I initially thought was lacking in the book—fascinating characters. By then, I’ve come to realize that the reason I had some issues with Mahit in the earlier half of the book wasn’t that she was poorly written, but it was because she needed some time for her personality to shine and she hasn’t really interacted much with the main side characters; Three Seagrass and Twelve Azalea. These two characters truly made Mahit’s personality bloom. The unlikely relationships that Mahit formed with these two characters were utterly delightful to read and I loved reading every moment of it. Eventually, the novel ended up becoming an exhilarating ride due to the gradual increase in tension and most of all, my growing investment in the characters and their fates. Plus, Martine was brilliantly able to make weird character names work. I’m not kidding, I’ve read a lot of books and this was literally the first time I’ve read characters’ names as original as those in A Memory Called Empire. Here’s an example:

“‘I am Six Helicopter,’ said the man—Mahit stared at him, and wondered when he’d learned to say his name with not only a straight face but with that degree of smugness”


Once you’ve started reading this novel, I think you will easily agree with me that Arkady Martine is a very intellectual author. The reason why I say this is mainly because of the incredibly intricate world-building, and Martine’s implementation of it into the storyline. I won’t lie, I haven’t read sci-fi/space opera as much as I’ve read epic fantasy. However, from my experience so far, the world-building in sci-fi/space opera rarely reach the intricacy that can easily be found in epic fantasy. However, A Memory Called Empire amazed my vision and imagination with its super detailed world-building, and its seamless integration into every aspect of the book. Technology, culture, memory, legacy, language, citizen’s behavior, identity crisis, and history, they were all written impeccably. Most of the novel was told in the past tense, but there were a few times where the narrative shifts to present tense and Martine nailed this transition wonderfully. Not only did the changes in tenses feel natural, it was also necessary to enhance the frantic scenes portrayed. I’d like to also add it’s better to take your time reading this book. Digest each word slowly, because there’re a lot of nuances to appreciate in the multi-layered world-building. Plus, Martine didn’t spend a lot of time explaining the terminology; it’s up to the reader to define what the terms mean through the context of the story and narrative. Luckily, there’s a glossary near the end of the book that will help readers a lot in understanding what each in-world term means, or who the characters are.

“Histories are always worse by the time they get written down.”


Written with finesse, A Memory Called Empire didn’t feel like a debut effort at all. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have guessed this is a debut if no one has told me about it. The prose was so vivid, engaging, and easy to follow despite a myriad of terminologies and unique names to remember. The intro of my review said crystal clear - it’s very easy for me to claim that A Memory Called Empire is one of the cleverest sci-fi debuts I’ve ever read. There are a lot of promising books being published in 2019, and I’m pretty damn sure that Arkady Martine’s skillfully crafted debut will be one of the books that many readers rave about in the future.

“Better to take action than to be paralyzed by the thousands of shifting possibilities.”


Official release date: March 26th, 2019

You can buy the book with free shipping by clicking this link!

The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

You can find this and the rest of my reviews at Novel Notions
Profile Image for Nataliya.
710 reviews11.3k followers
September 3, 2020
This is an intelligent and well-crafted engrossing science fiction story that combines amazing worldbuilding with the political intrigue and murder mystery, and a fascinating exploration of the culture clashes and colonialism experience. I loved it. It tickled all the right places in my brain and was just a pleasure to read.
“That was the problem. Empire was empire—the part that seduced and the part that clamped down, jaws like a vise, and shook a planet until its neck was broken and it died.”

Teixcalaan is a galaxies-spanning empire with a capital that is a planet-spanning City, the culture where the word for the world and the planet and the city is the same - effectively excluding the non-imperial (yet) “barbarians” from the world and by extension humanity (unless, that is, the barbarian worlds are annexed into the ever-expanding empire, of course). It is an old culture rooted in decorum and traditions and - take me seriously here, because it actually somehow works here - poetry. Its size and scope and influence dwarfs the so far somehow still independent Lsel station - a polity of ten space stations focused on rare elements mining.


“You do devour. Isn’t that what we’re talking about? A war of annexation.”

“It’s not—
devour would be if we were xenophobes or genocides, if we didn’t bring new territories into the Empire.”

Into the world. Shift the pronunciation of the verb, and Three Seagrass could have been saying if we didn’t make new territories real, but Mahit knew what she meant: all the ways that being part of Teixcalaan gave a planet or a station prosperity. Economic, cultural— take a Teixcalaanli name, be a citizen. Speak poetry.”

Mahit Dzmare is a new ambassador from Lsel to Teixcalaan, hastily chosen to replace her predecessor Yskandr Aghavn - a mysterious man who apparently seems to have integrated himself into the most unexpected places in Teixcalaanli hierarchy and politics. For Mahit, it’s a dream posting - there’s nowehere she’d rather be than the heart of the Empire, having lived and admired it her whole life.
“Yskandr liked Teixcalaan. But you, Ambassador Dzmare, if you weren’t an ambassador you’d apply for citizenship.”

Mahit’s cultural experience is where the book really shines. It is the experience of one from a “smaller” culture, for her whole life exposed to the omnipresent culture of the enormous expansionist neighbor, seductive in its refinery and sophistication - “Teixcalaan the story, Teixcalaan the empire of poets, all-conquering all-devouring all-singing beast in the garden of her imaginings.” This is the culture that dominates, that makes the “barbarians” feel that they are exactly that - unrefined, inferior, never to rise to the alluring heights of feeling belonging and therefore acceptance and fulfillment.
“It made her jealous in a way she recognized as childish: the dumb longing of a noncitizen to be acknowledged as a citizen.”

“Somewhere in the middle of the second oration, an acrostic ode that simultaneously spelled out the name of the poet’s hypothetical lost beloved via the opening letters of each line and told a heart-wrenching story of his self-sacrifice to save his shipmates from a vacuum breach, Mahit had the sudden realization that she was standing in the Teixcalaanli court, hearing a Teixcalaanli poetry contest, while holding an alcoholic drink and accompanied by a witty Teixcalaanli friend. Everything she had ever wanted when she was fifteen. Right here.”

Mahit, “Lsel-raised, Lsel-acculturated down to the blood and bone all despite her pretentions toward loving Teixcalaanli literature” is torn between the long-standing admiration for the colonizing culture and loyalty to her own, less glamorous but very much *hers*. She can’t help but notice and bridle at their perception of her as “the poor, ignorant barbarian playing so hard at civilization” — and the realization is frequently a painful one.
“Their laughter covered how she wanted to squirm, wanted to be grateful for being not a barbarian enough that citizenship would have been a possibility and hating herself for wanting to be grateful, all at once.“

This story also explores the themes of identity and memory. You see, the one thing that Lsel has that Teixcalaan supposedly does not know about is the imago machines. Imago, an “ancestral live memory”, is an imprint of a person with all their memories and knowledge and personality, implanted into the one designated as their successor to prevent loss of knowledge accumulated over the generations. The personalities eventually integrate, or at least they are supposed to. And of course the question arises - is it still you? And what does the concept of “you” encompass?
“Are we ourselves? One of them is asking. One of them thinks this is a rhetorical question: there’s continuity of memory, and that makes a self. A self is whoever remembers being that self.“

Mahit, of course, received an (unfortunately fifteen years out-of-date) imago of her predecessor Yskandr — but something is wrong, and Yskandr’s imago is malfunctioning, leaving Mahit without valuable memories and guidance, leaving her alone to navigate with varying success the strange world of Teixcalaanli politics and society that is grappling with a succession crisis and is on the brink of a civil war, all while she is targeted by the forces who are likely responsible for Yskandr’s death. And how deep exactly did Yskandr’s ties to the ruling elite of Teixcalaan go? And how far was he - and now Mahit - willing to go to preserve Lsel from apparently inevitable annexation?
“Mahit thought of the fundamental assumption of Teixcalaanli society: that collapse between world and Empire and City—and how if there was such a collapse, importation was uneasy, foreign was dangerous, even if that importation was just from a distant part of the Empire.“

It was hard for me to believe that it was Arkady Martine’s debut novel. It just feels like the work of someone more seasoned, more experienced - which bodes very well for her future books. She balances all the themes and threads with skill. Her worldbuilding is complex and elaborate, yet stays over from over-exposition. The book proceeds at the measured pace, never an adrenaline-fueled ride which nevertheless is very interesting in the political intrigue and culture and identity study sense.

Very impressive indeed, silly Teixcalaanli names nonwithstanding. Although the numeral+noun construction (Six Direction, Three Seagrass, Twelve Azalea) did provide some entertainment and by end no longer felt as silly.
I would like to be known there as 3.1415926 Pie. Just because.

And another thing that I love: although the first in a series, it can easily be read as a stand-alone. The storyline of this book is satisfyingly resolved, no cliffhangers or dangling story threads. It is set up for the expansion of the story in the sequels - but also firmly stands on its own.

4.5 stars, happily rounding up to 5 stars. So far it’s my favorite of all the Hugo and Nebula nominees. Maybe it will get that Hugo.
“Perhaps she was old enough for poetry now: she had three lives inside her, and a death.“

——————

My Hugo and Nebula Awards Reading Project 2020: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Profile Image for Rebecca Roanhorse.
Author 53 books7,163 followers
January 1, 2020
I call this one The Aztec Empire in Space, in the best way. While a number of real world historical cultures no doubt influenced the superb and subtle worldbuilding in this novel, the one that I loved the most, that absolutely thrilled me, was the influence of the pre-conquest Aztec Empire. You so rarely see it in SFF (at least English language work). The naming conventions, the flowers, the people, the poetry, the sacrifice, the nahuatl word influence, and that's just the obvious things. There were so many tiny gasps of joy from me while reading this, I'm a little embarrassed. But, suffice it to say, this was right up my alley.

Like many contemporary space operas in the vein of Anne Leckie, this was less pew pew and more palace intrigue and factions both domestic and military vie for power at the heart of the Teixcalaani Empire. And pulled into the middle of if is our protagonist, a wonderfully complex characters facing trials both personal and profession, including the mystery of her predecessor's death, her own assassination attempts, and that expat feeling (for anyone who's lived in another country as an adult, you know what I mean). The supporting cast is just as intriguing, the world is immersive, there are layers to the mystery but never annoyingly so - all but one biggie resolve satisfactorily and that last one is no doubt for book #2 which I eagerly look forward to.

This one goes on my award nominations list for sure.
Profile Image for Holly.
1,391 reviews925 followers
August 28, 2019
Have you ever had to basically bribe yourself to finish a book? Like, you'll decide that if you read 50 more pages, you get to read a chapter of the book you would really rather be reading or you get to have a piece of candy. No? Just me? Well that's what I had to do to finish this book.

It started out well enough - the 'deadly technological secret' referenced in the blurb was absolutely the most interesting part of the book. Though I think labeling it 'deadly' is debatable. But once that secret is revealed, which is pretty early on, then things go downhill. You're sucked into the politics of another planet/civilization that apparently really likes poetry of all things. Oh, and everyone has stupid names that start with a number and ends with an object. So for example, 'Fourteen Candle' really could be a character's name. That got old real fast and I didn't have any emotional connection to these characters, partly because their names were so distractingly ridiculous. The politics were just a jumble to me of various factions, all of which I didn't care about. There wasn't much character specific plot to latch on to either. So yeah, this wasn't enjoyable. But hey, I got to eat some candy for finishing it LOL!
Profile Image for Allison Hurd.
Author 3 books675 followers
May 23, 2020
Attempt two:

Listened to the audio this time and it really smoothed out the issues I had with the prose. All my initial problems stand, but it was enjoyable. So, 3 stars, but I'm keeping the rating because it really needs to be listened to in order to be palatable, and really it still doesn't add up to a compelling story for me. A political intrigue book where none of the politics make sense and the intrigue is...mostly imaginary.

---------------

Time of death: 62%

I'm sorry, I'm skimming more and more and it's just not worth forcing myself to finish another book I can't enjoy.

What I was initially struck with was how much I respected the author--she seems educated, kind, fond of wit and justice, and I admire those things. Unfortunately, this book was largely misrepresented to me, and by the time I adjusted to the accurate genre, it was clear that it had none of the elements I enjoy in that sphere.

-A political thriller not a space opera. I guess, in the broadest sense, it takes place not on Earth, has people who live in space stations and there's a romance and war, so, like, okay, that's operatic. But when you focus less on the internal life of a character or cast of characters and focus instead on a whodunnit with implications the size of empire, it's usually considered more a political intrigue story.

-No tension whatsoever. Things that should kill people leave ouchies. Bombs go off and don't touch our main character. People try to kill her every other day and she discusses romance poems over their corpses.

-Illogical. I know these can't be humans like I am human because their reasoning patterns are completely separate from mine.

-Plotting/pacing issues. Maybe it's debut novel syndrome, though the prose and the concept are much tighter than one would assume given that, and usually allowing a little space for the author to experiment with her writing style is all you need to still find a great story. However about a quarter of the book so far has been rehashing things, another quarter has been reports and excerpts to things I can't interpret, the third quarter is quips, parties, and broad hints that are, I assume, meant as foreshadowing, and the remaining quarter is the thread we're following.

-Huge story holes. This one is something probably closer to my personal issues, but none of this makes sense for war, diplomacy, negotiation, or investigation. Also, the conceit of breaking the cool stuff we were meant to be interested in before we could see why it was interesting did not work for me.

-The social justice issues. The othering is intense and out of place. I was hopeful I'd read a thoughtful look at colonization and the struggle for human rights, but as of 62%, all I have is micro-aggressions and what feels like slurs.

I can't get into it and the further I push, the more averse I become to enjoying it, so it's time to stop punishing myself and just admit that I'm not the audience for this book. I do think this author is one I could see enjoying in a different genre, but I'm so picky about anything that requires professionals carefully choosing words that I don't think this is where our literary adventure should start together. 1 star added because I gave up before the "favorite chapters" of people I respect, and because I think this author deserves her own star for making me like her even though I do not like this book.
Profile Image for Lori.
308 reviews101 followers
June 20, 2019
It has a slow at the start with the pace and world building then gets better as you go. Emphasis is own political intrigue in the Empire rather than action and thrills.
Profile Image for Justus.
594 reviews67 followers
February 13, 2020
This and The Priory of the Orange Tree (#4 in Goodreads' best fantasy poll) are the two big flops for me this year, where I disagreed strongly with popular books. And not just "it is okay but overrated" but "this is actually not good".

Lacklustre world building, characters that literally accomplish nothing in 400+ pages, contrived secrets, pointless scenes, and more.

On top of that: I went into it with wildly wrong expectations. I'd seen several places call this "space opera", which it definitely isn't. It takes place entirely in a single city -- and mostly in the palace compound on that city -- it is a political thriller, not a space opera.

I found the world building bizarre simply because it felt so lazy. Everything about the empire is a transparent copy of imperial China with a very thin veneer of Aztec names and religion. It takes it so far it is sometimes implausible. In this world there is no email: people actually send letters to one another that are "encrypted" with poetry. There is actually a minor plot point of Mahit needing to get into her apartment to get her mail so she knows what to do next. This, in a universe with galactic empires and neuro-computers that let you back up another person entire.

She had the imago-machine, safe inside her shirt, but what she didn’t have was the mail.


Sometimes when you start to dislike a book, you begin finding fault with all kinds of things that you wouldn't otherwise. I think the world-building is like that. It is ridiculous but I could have accepted it (I've accepted far worse before!) if I had bought into the book.

I think where the book really lost me was early on, in the first one-fifth or so. Mahit is the ambassador to the premiere galactic empire. She's been training for it her entire life. She's spent three months with the memories of the previous ambassador surgically implanted into her. And yet the book gives us dozens, hundreds, of scenes where Mahit is played as a completely ignorant ingenue who needs to have the imperial culture explained to her -- all so the author can infodump on the reader.

The single worst instance of this is when Mahit is unaware that the emperor doesn't have a natural-born child heir. Really?!? And also doesn't know that he has appointed three co-equal heirs. And also has never seen any pictures or videos of what any of them look like.

Everything about her job as an ambassador makes no sense. A big part of the book is that she has no friends or allies in an alien empire. Really?!? There's not a single staff member in the consulate from her home world?!? The book shows her literally approving visas herself -- for an entire empire with hundreds of billions of people! -- because she has no staff.

This contrivedness extends everywhere once you see it, often resulting in scenes that should have been edited out because they add nothing. During an imperial party she gets drunk and wanders the corridors of the palace and, amazingly!, stumbles into a garden where she meets Eight Antidote, the child-clone-heir. In a scene that is pointless and adds nothing to the book. While walking back, in another empty corridor, she runs into Thirty Larkspur, the other co-heir! Then she meets Eight Loop, the third co-heir in another pointless meeting. When she goes to meet a doctor in a run-down crime-ridden part of town she just happens to run into violent resistance leaders visiting that same exact doctor at that same exact time. But it doesn't actually serve the plot in any way. It is just "she met them" for a few seconds.

Ultimately, what is all of this in service of? The characters have no real agency. The entire book is them reacting to things around them. Mahit is strangely completely incurious about any of the attempts on her life. She never asks anyone a single follow up question -- "Hey, did the police make any arrests in that restaurant bombing yet?" -- about any of them. At the end of the day what did Mahit actually do?



Meanwhile characters left and right are telling Mahit how interesting and amazing she is when she hasn't done anything noteworthy that I could see.

Ugh. I could not wait for this book to be done. Why didn't I just give up half way through?

There are no Ubers or taxis in this world. A major plot point is that the subway system (which they make a big deal about how it is 100% automated) shuts down at night and they have no way to get back to the palace except by walking(!!).

An algorithm’s only as perfect as the person designing it.


(Note: that's not how algorithms work. At all.)

The previous ambassador didn't report home for fifteen years and his government just let him instead of recalling him. Mahit only sends a single report back home in her first week. She finds a street doctor who is able to perform neuro-surgery on a technology they had never seen before. She writes a poem that is so popular that millions of people are singing it the next day. And more.
Profile Image for Acqua.
536 reviews189 followers
March 18, 2019
A Memory Called Empire is a political sci-fi novel with a main f/f romance, the best court intrigue I've read in months if not ever, and plot twists I didn't see coming.
It's set in a space empire in which straight isn't the default, most of the cast is queer, and the worldbuilding is complex but never confusing - everything I've ever wanted.

And yet it's so much more. I knew this would be an intense read for me right from the dedication, because this book is dedicated to anyone who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring their own.

Maybe devouring isn't the right word, but how do you call it when a country often tries compare itself to America according to American standards, not realizing that it's a game it will always lose? Or how do you call the constant attempts at emulation because "American culture" is mistaken by some as "modernity", or even only the fact that the YA section in a bookstore is mostly translated American books? (When your neighbor is more powerful than you are, it gets to decide what is modern, what is moral, and even what's good literature, but it really shouldn't be that way.)

And this book gets it. This book also gets that the misguided "patriots" who try to restore the "purity" of the culture and avoid cross-culture "contamination" are dangerous (...and often advocating for some version of fascism).
This book gets why someone might love another country's literature so much that they speak another language better than their own, that they think and dream in it. This book gets what it means to never lose the lingering feeling that you're reading stories that never quite fit you, because they were never meant for you in the first place - you are, at best, an afterthought.

I do realize that I'm talking about a book written in English, published in America. But for once, and this might be the first time, I haven't felt like a book was explicitly not written for me.
I could understand Mahit, which means that some parts of this were hard to read. When she feels both insulted and complimented when someone says that she speaks/acts exactly like someone of another culture, or that specific kind of... angry xenophilia we share, or that part in which she specifically says that she finally found a word to describe how she felt and it wasn't even in her language.

But let's talk about the rest of the book too, not only about Mahit's experience with navigating two cultures. A Memory Called Empire has some of the best worldbuilding I've seen lately. Don't get intimidated by words like Teixcalaanlitzlim or ezuazuacat - the court, the intrigue and the surprising plot twists are worth it. (I thought it was worth it just for the pretty descriptions, but not everyone shares my priorities.)

I loved Mahit Dzmare. She's the new ambassador in Teixcalaan, and she gets thrown in a place where she has no allies, after her predecessor got murdered. She's smart and manages to do so much from almost nothing - if you want to read about a complex female character who doesn't use a weapon in the whole book but changes the outcome of an empire's messy succession problem anyway, try this. And her slow-burn romance with cultural liaison Three Seagrass? I love both of them so much, and Seagrass as a character kept surprising me.
The side characters were interesting to read as well - Nineteen Adze was... fascinating to say the least, Yskandr Aghavn was a bisexual disaster and the dialogues between what was left of him and Mahit were my favorite parts of the book, and Twelve Azalea's banter with Seagrass was very entertaining to read too.

Also,

When I say that I love a sci-fi book's worldbuilding, it means that it did something interesting with the technology: this did - it's the first book I've ever read that mentioned that AIs can carry the human creator's biases.
But the most interesting sci-fi technology is without a doubt the imago-machine. In Mahit's culture, the memories of the dead are installed on compatible people, and Mahit has an out-of-date version of the previous ambassador in her head.

I loved how this book talked about personhood, memory and identity because of the imago, and how the concept of "me" had different meanings in those situations.
A Memory Called Empire is a book that pays a lot of attention to language, how cultures shape it, and how they shape literature in return. It's really interesting to read, and the level of lit-related detail - paired with the excerpts you get at the beginning of every chapter - made these fictional cultures feel more real. Those details were also part of this book's odd sense of humor (plagiarism jokes! Inappropriate citations! Even more inappropriate double entendres!)

The only thing I didn't like was the binarism. This book is set in a world where homophobia doesn't exist and polyamory is normal, but... there are no explicitly non-binary characters, and some phrasings used in this ARC copy were binarist ("men and women" instead of "people"). An otherwise-queer-accepting society being binarist wouldn't be flawed worldbuilding in itself, were there any reason for it to be that way. Was it intentional? If so, why? I feel like I'm nitpicking but I would have wanted to know more about this.
Profile Image for Henk.
796 reviews
January 18, 2023
A sci-fi murder mystery interspersed with reflections on colonialism and imperialism. An engaging and fast read but a bit bland
There was nothing safe, there were only gradations of exposure to danger

It is very interesting how Arkady Martine engages with the question of how the barbarian tribes past the Rhine and Danube would have felt when they’d be invited into Rome at its apex. But the in space. The Heian court of Japan, with the focus on decorum, rituals, literature and poetry, comes to mind as well.
The whole concept of a “culture victory” as known from Civilization VI (my favorite videogame) was something I thought about as well while reading the book.

Still I found the execution lacking in A Memory Called Empire.

If/even/maybe/I am going to assume: conjectures based on events seem to be more prolific than actually events in the book. And for a barbarian/fangirl of the empire our main character is very good in politics. Are you trained for intrigue back at the station is actually asked at one point, and she verges on Mary Sue at moments. And yes, yes, we know how annoying it is that your predecessor is away.

Also, how often do ambassadors actually have any influence, I mean would the ambassador of a country like Montenegro (or Mexico since the system is a neighbor to the empire) be a real influence in domestic politics in Washington or even New York at the UN?
Plus how does expanding the empire and simultaneously doing something else preclude each other? Why in the first place would an almighty empire with vast fleets at its command bargain for something it could take outright?

More generally, I started to wonder how long a society can keep a technology shielded, I mean silk farming in the medieval time could not be kept in China for more than a few hundred years, and this book revolves around 14 generations of secrets. And the more general question how something was developed in a mining station with 30.000 inhabitants and not in a multi planetary gigantic space empire, is also left unanswered.

But then again the reflections on how, through technology, privilege could be cemented forever are very interesting.
Plus the sidekicks of the main character are fun and quirky, and I didn’t see the romance coming till quite far into the book.

Overall somewhere between 2.5 and 3 stars for me, and a bit of a letdown for a Hugo Award winner. Both Terra Ignota of Ada Palmer (in terms of world building) or Murderbot by Martha Wells (in terms of snarky and sheer fun in the narration) are definitely better in this genre.
Profile Image for jade.
489 reviews276 followers
March 20, 2021
“the jaws of the empire opening up again, akimbo, bloody-toothed -- the endless self-justifying desire that was teixcalaan, and teixcalaanli ways of thinking of the universe. the empire, the world. one and the same. and if they were not yet so: make them so, for this is the right and correct will of the stars.”

in a dazzling sci-fi read high on worldbuilding and political intrigue, an ambassador to a small space station is trying to investigate her predecessor’s death at the court of a vastly expanding empire -- and uncovers a myriad of entanglements and state secrets in the process.

i loved this book. i positively ADORED IT.

it started out as one of my favorite reads this year, but will likely be upgraded to one of my top reads of all-time. it spoke to me on a deeply personal level, as well as entertaining me with its lovely prose and fascinating me with its detailed exploration of language, culture, and identity.

there are some familiar sci-fi elements here such as the thriller-annex-mystery space opera, transhumanism and accompanying technology, plus an intergalactic empire swallowing up smaller colonies -- and yet all of it felt incredibly fresh.

martine commanded my attention with a game of cat-and-mouse in which the stakes are continually upped every time our protagonist mahit dzmare discovers a new tidbit of information or makes an ally, enemy or even frenemy at court.

add to that a layer of humor and a quick wit back-and-forth relationship between mahit and her cultural liaison, and you’ve got a great court intrigue thriller that never gets too Edgy Dark. it rarely ever devolves into Shoot ‘Em Up, instead going the way of the (at times satisfyingly forceful) diplomat with tons of Parry-and-Riposte Dialogue.

which i am known to love. i mean, there’s a clever hilarity about trying to fight your way through a conversation with a politician who keeps expressing sympathy for the death of your predecessor while you’re VERY aware that said politician might’ve had a hand in their demise.

anyway, let me talk about the premise in just a bit more detail: small space station lsel has been friendly with the empire of teixcalaan for years, mostly to avoid being annexed into said empire. when teixcalaan requests a new ambassador to replace the old one, lsel decides to send mahit dzmare.

young, inexperienced, ‘barbarian’ mahit who is utterly and completely enamored with teixcalaanli culture, which she will soon find out is still not enough for the teixcalaanli not to view her as an outsider. her mission: figure out what the hell happened and continue to obstruct the annexation of lsel into teixcalaan.

… oh, mahit. i could talk about her character for days, even though it can take a while to fully warm up to her as a protagonist. but i think this book’s dedication captures the core of who she is very well:
“this book is dedicated to anyone who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring their own.”
and that instantly brings me to the themes of this story.

there are several layers to it that all leak and fold into the next. from the literal to the personal and back to the thematic, we have the following clashing entities:

(1) a grand, expansive empire wielding military power, art & refinement (‘cultured’) versus a small, compact, self-reliant space colony wielding technology, space pilots & trade (‘barbarians’);
(2) discordant cultural identities versus conflicting personal identities (and a desperate attempt at integrating them all);
(3) a desire for expansion, annexation, and colonization versus a desire for legacy, preservation, and endurance.

and clashing in any of these instances could mean war. revolution. change.

mahit is at the very center of this, constantly balancing between her admiration of the empire and her need to craft alliances at court while trying to keep both her space colony and herself safe. we see her submerge even deeper into the culture of the empire, which she can’t help but love even though the deeper she sinks, the more she realizes she will never be One of Them.

and then there is the matter of her predecessor, yskandr aghavn, who had many more friends in the teixcalaanli empire than he ever seemed to have had on lsel. friends who reach for mahit, looking for their old friend -- what promises did he make, what alliances did he forge, and what will mahit have to answer to?

the intricacy of it all is just Really Good. and i have to say that it worked for me so well because of the worldbuilding.

we see teixcalaanli ways mostly through its planet-spanning capital from which mahit operates: the City, a dazzling wonder of gleaming structures, hanging gardens, and water features. you can see martine’s background as a byzantine historian here as she rolls out a magnificent, devouring animal of an empire that fully retains its refinement and beauty.
“the city was alien in the dark. not so much silent as haunted: the boulevards and deep-sunk flower pools were vaster without the sun, the shape of all the buildings uncannily organic, like they might breathe or bloom.”
it was a joy to see a culture inspired by the aztec empire in modern sci-fi, including many callbacks to the architecture and irrigation systems of tenochtitlan, and a nahuatl-based teixcalaanli language. language plays a great role in general, because in teixcalaan poetry is used for coded ciphers as well as simple news messages!

i can imagine that for some readers, though, it’s a little too dense in that aspect. there’s plenty of time spent on the intricacies of language, poetry, names, and customs, and i’ve seen some reviews call out weird language quirks. but for me personally that’s exactly what i want out of a social intrigue novel, and it allowed me to submerge in teixcalaanli culture all the more.

another criticism is its prose: martine is very fond of italicizing to the point where it really starts to stand out. i’ve also caught a couple of sentences that formed entire paragraphs with how long they were (yes, also filled to the brim with semicolons, commas, and em dashes and no, i’m not taking any criticism at this time), which doesn’t always read as smoothly as i would’ve liked.

but i will gladly take a couple of writer’s quirks hidden in lovingly descriptive prose when it means i’ll get such a meaningful story in turn. and despite its serious themes and density, it retains its pace and reads quite fast thanks to mahit’s own tenacity and ability to view the world around her with both lightness and longing.

that said, i would not necessarily pick up this book specifically for its mystery. though it is a driving force behind the plot, this book is about culture and identity much more than it is a mystery thriller with surprising twists or turns. if you come in with the wrong expectations, the answers to the book’s big riddles could be a tad disappointing.

anyway, i could talk about this book for many, many hours but alas, all good things must come to an end.

read this if the book’s dedication calls to you. pick it up if you like some good court intrigue that mixes ambassadorial agency with a deeply personal story about identity. add it to your collection for the sweet, understated f/f romance and its deadpan humor.

i’ll be over here feeling like this book quietly stabbed me in the chest with its thematic blade while cradling me lovingly in its arms, whispering: i carry exile in my heart.

5.0 stars.
Profile Image for Gary.
442 reviews185 followers
April 4, 2019
Ambassador Mahit Dzmare, the protagonist of Arkady Martine’s debut space opera A Memory Called Empire, has more than one identity crisis on her hands: she has a deep affinity for the empire that wants to annex her home and she also literally has someone else’s personality nested in her brain. Dzmare’s internal conflicts correlate with the external ones that drive the novel’s plot. Living within the Teixcalaan Empire has been her heart’s desire since childhood, yet her primary aim as ambassador is to keep Teixcalaan from assuming control of her home, Lsel Station. This same conflict between personal desire and professional duty may have gotten her predecessor Yskandr Aghavn killed. It is Yskandr whose “imago” (an impression of the man built from his recorded memories) is implanted in her head. Imago technology is a Lsel state secret, yet the Teixcalaanlitzlim find it during Yskandr’s autopsy, and this discovery could embolden those who wish for Teixcalaan to consume Lsel.
To the author’s credit, her plotting is far less complicated than her world-building. Martine is a Byzantinist, and her Teixcalaan society is as relentlessly sophisticated as her discipline implies. At one point Mahit even refers to her passion for Teixcalaan ciphers as “byzantine”, and one can presume that when Teixcalaan survives but in memory and in the pages of history books will also invoke its name adjectively. The Teixcalaanlitzlim are a people in love with the idea of itself, where individual identity ties to a variety of cultural meanings and referents and even simple acts of communication come with layers of contextual baggage. The story, however, has a straightforward goal for its hero to achieve, muddied as it is by reactionary obstructions and elusive secrets. Mahit and her long-outdated, malfunctioning imago must find out how and why Yskandr was killed before forces inside and out overtake Teixcalaan and Lsel.
While the plot may be clear and linear, the novel’s architecture leaves room for more elaborate readings. Except for a few structured divergences, the tight third-person POV almost exclusively follows Mahit Dzmare from her arrival at the Teixcalaanli capital city-planet through the end. Those divergences—a prologue, epilogue, three interludes, and multiple historical excerpts and quotes heading each chapter—refer the reader to the broader political and historical circumstances at play. Together with Dzmare’s immersion in her beloved Teixcalaanli culture, Martine’s project offers a snapshot of a future history at least as rich and variegated as found in Frank Herbert’s Dune Chronicles, with almost limitless potential for return visits.
A Memory Called Empire does an exceptional job of balancing precise, consequential storytelling with layered world-building. Explicating a culture as multifaceted as Teixcalaan has the potential to overwhelm readers with exegetic digressions and overstuffed lexicons but Martine keeps the exposition plot-centered without painting her presumably copious notes and research all over the page. The novel is also rife with the kinds of amenities that inspire fannish devotion, such as the delightful (and precious) Teixcalaanli naming system. What really makes the novel work, though, are the fundamentals: Dzmare and her confidants Three Seagrass and Twelve Azealia make for excellent company, and the suspenseful, well-paced mystery plot keeps the pages turning with escalating tension and perfectly measured revelations.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Tor Books for the opportunity to read this ARC.
Profile Image for may ➹.
462 reviews1,846 followers
April 1, 2022
reading books the way they’re meant to be read (with no memory of what occurred in the first 100 pages that I read 4 months ago)
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books3,845 followers
June 8, 2019
This was something of a slow starter for me. I enjoyed the empire that ran on poetry aspect quite a bit. The standard book of poetical encryptions, the multilayered pride, and subversions built right into the language.

However, I've read a ton of murder-mysteries built into SF worlds so the core of the tale was something of a no-brainer and followed all the conventions. Welcome a stranger, an ambassador for a tiny space-station ensconced in a huge, huge empire, have her replace her murdered counterpart.

Okay! Really kinda usual, so the joy has to be in the worldbuilding, and for the most part, all the joy is there... until a bit further in. That's when all the really cool bits fly at us, with the Imago memory device, the collapsing politics, the roar of war, and how our little fish out of water ties into a huge conspiracy. That's fine.

In fact, it's more than fine. I really enjoyed the core and the end of this book. Easy consumption and I consumed it easily. Some of the best kind of SF (IMHO) is interesting tech delved deeply, how it affects societies, politics, individual relationships, and an individual's sense of self. This one does all of this quite nicely. I felt the flavors of Yoon Ha Lee and Anne Leckie within it. Maybe a bit of Cherryh, but by this late date, SO MANY writers have tried their hands at Cherryh. :)

I won't say this is on the same level as those, but I will say I had a good time. :)
Profile Image for Elizabeth Bear.
Author 307 books2,242 followers
February 19, 2018
An exceptional first novel recommended for fans of Cherryh, Leckie, Banks, and Asimov.
Profile Image for Dennis.
650 reviews252 followers
February 15, 2021
***Winner of the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel***

I really enjoyed this story of an ambassador that is new on the job and not only has to get used to a different place and culture, but also has to find out what lead to her predecessor‘s death. All this while she has an outdated version of him in her head, and her endocrine system.

I found the idea with the imago-machines, which preserve the memories of the dead, fascinating. The main character Mahit Dzmare should be able to benefit from the experiences of her predecessor. The problem though is that 1) the last imago back-up is outdated by roughly fifteen years, 2) because of the Empire’s immediate need for a new ambassador from Lsel – an independent mining station – Mahit didn’t have sufficient time to get used to literally having two minds, and 3) when Mahit-Yskandr come across the older Yskandr’s dead body things don’t go exactly well.

Mahit basically has to tiptoe her way through several relationships with people in power, as it is unclear what exactly happened to Yskandr. That makes it hard for her to be sure of anybody’s intentions, especially as there is much more serious conflict on the horizon, since the current Emperor is old and fragile and there is no clear-cut successor. Naturally, several people have an interest in that position. What are their respective plans for Lsel Station, though? And what does it all have to do with Yskandr’s untimely death?

Frankly, Mahit isn’t always good at tiptoeing. But thankfully she has a cultural liaison in Three Seagrass. And the developing relationship between those two, as well as the one with Nineteen Adze - a sworn confidant of the Emperor – are delightful. Though the ezuazuacat’s (Nineteen Adze’s) intentions are far less clear-cut.

The interactions between the characters are my favorite part about this book, but the worldbuilding is pretty good too. What I didn’t like were all those fancy (and sometimes downright silly) names. Some of those I found impossible to pronounce, and others I found just ridiculous. Which had the effect that I quickly started skimming over the names, and then sometimes had to revert to the glossary to be sure who I’m just dealing with. Less than optimal. And in addition to that there were also some overly long and complicated sentences, which forced me to read some parts again.

Even though the dialogue is often great, the prose in general was occasionally problematic for me and is the main reason I can’t give this book full marks. Sometimes it just made me work a little too hard, when it really wouldn‘t have been necessary. However, when the shit hit the fan, and Mahit, Three Seagrass and Twelve Azalea had to deal with one dangerous situation after the other, those things hardly mattered anymore. But they were not completely forgotten.

4.5 stars, rounded down.

Looking forward to the next book.

*******

Pre-review musings:

Not all hope is lost for the Nebulas. Finally a great story that's been nominated for this year's awards.

4.5 stars

Review to follow tomorrow. I'm trying to actually watch the ceremony this year, which has just started. Of course I will later regret this, as it is already past 2 am in Germany. Oh well.

_________________
2019 Nebula Award Finalists

Best Novel
Marque of Caine by Charles E. Gannon
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker

Best Novella
• Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom by Ted Chiang ( Exhalation)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan
The Deep by Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes
Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise

Best Novelette
• A Strange Uncertain Light by G.V. Anderson ( The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2019)
For He Can Creep by Siobhan Carroll
His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light by Mimi Mondal
• The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye by Sarah Pinsker ( Uncanny Magazine Issue 29: July/August 2019)
Carpe Glitter by Cat Rambo
• The Archronology of Love by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed Magazine, April 2019)

Best Short Story
Give the Family My Love by A.T. Greenblatt (Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 149, February 2019)
• The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power by Karen Osborne (Uncanny Magazine Issue 27: March/April 2019)
• And Now His Lordship Is Laughing by Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons 9 September 2019)
• Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare Magazine, Issue 80)
• A Catalog of Storms by Fran Wilde (Uncanny Magazine, Issue 26, January-February 2019)
• How the Trick Is Done by A.C. Wise (Uncanny Magazine Issue 29: July/August 2019)

Andre Norton Nebula Award for Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez
Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer
Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee
Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions by Henry Lien
Cog by Greg van Eekhout
Riverland by Fran Wilde

____________________________
2020 Hugo Award Finalists

Best Novel
The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

Best Novella
• Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom by Ted Chiang ( Exhalation)
The Deep by Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Best Novelette
• The Archronology of Love by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed Magazine, April 2019)
• Away With the Wolves by Sarah Gailey ( Uncanny Magazine Issue 30: Disabled People Destroy Fanatsy! Special Issue)
• The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye by Sarah Pinsker ( Uncanny Magazine Issue 29: July/August 2019)
Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin
For He Can Creep by Siobhan Carroll
Omphalos by Ted Chiang

Best Short Story
• And Now His Lordship Is Laughing by Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons 9 September 2019)
As the Last I May Know by S.L. Huang
Blood Is Another Word for Hunger by Rivers Solomon
• A Catalog of Storms by Fran Wilde (Uncanny Magazine, Issue 26, January-February 2019)
• Do Not Look Back, My Lion by Alix E. Harrow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #270)
• Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare Magazine, Issue 80)

Best Series
The Expanse by James S. A. Corey
• InCryptid by Seanan McGuire
• Luna by Ian McDonald
• Planetfall series by Emma Newman
• Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden
• The Wormwood Trilogy by Tade Thompson

Best Related Work
Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood by J. Michael Straczynski
Joanna Russ by Gwyneth Jones
The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O’Meara
The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein by Farah Mendlesohn
2019 John W. Campbell Award Acceptance Speech by Jeannette Ng
• Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, produced and directed by Arwen Curry

Best Graphic Story or Comic
Die, Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles
LaGuardia, written by Nnedi Okorafor, art by Tana Ford, colours by James Devlin
Monstress, Volume 4: The Chosen, written by Marjorie Liu, art by Sana Takeda
Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker, letters by Joamette Gil
Paper Girls, Volume 6, written by Brian K. Vaughan, drawn by Cliff Chiang, colours by Matt Wilson, letters by Jared K. Fletcher
The Wicked + The Divine, Volume 9: "Okay" by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, colours by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles
Profile Image for Sarah.
564 reviews142 followers
February 22, 2019
I'm super disappointed to be giving this only three stars (no three stars isn't bad- I'd just much rather give it four or five). I'm beginning to question whether it's me or the books.

I guess I'll start at the beginning. One of the first pages said something along the lines of: "This is for all those who have ever fallen in love with a culture that was not their own."

That one line pretty much sums up the whole book. Mahit (our MC) has spent her whole life training to be an ambassador from her home mining outpost (Lsel) to the Teixcalaani Empire. She loves everything about Teixcalaan, their language, their artwork, their holovision programs, their politics and their way of speaking. So when her opportunity to become ambassador finally comes, she's over the moon with excitement. The only problem is- the previous ambassador is dead, and no one from Teixcalaan will talk about it.

The plot is sort of a murder mystery. I say sort of because the truth of the matter is that Yskander's death doesn't feel like it really has anything to do with the overall outcome. The other pieces of the plot were going to happen regardless if he had died or not.. so yeah. The more I'm thinking about it, the more the plot sort of falls apart as a whole (I mean- I guess he needed to die so Mahit could become ambassador but that's about it.)

There are plot threads that are incomplete. I don't want to call them cliffhangers because I didn't feel like enough tension was built into those parts for me to feel like I'm eagerly waiting the next installment to find out what happened. To be honest- it just feels like a stand alone with threads that went nowhere or Mahit concluded were not necessary to discover.

The characters were fun. I loved the banter between Three Seagrass and Twelve Azalea. There was a tiny, tiny bit of romance in the book. I almost wished it had more of a focus because I could have totally shipped that pair. Minor romance related spoiler: Yskander was probably my favorite character in the book although there wasn't enough of him, and I loved Nineteen Adze. She was presented as a very powerful female character, and I think her story line is probably the most interesting and complex in the book.

The tech and the world building were pretty cool. I liked the idea of the Sunlit (like police) being a part of the city and running on algorithms. It was very reminiscent of Leckie's Imperial Raadch series in that way. I loved the beautiful scenery and imagery that was presented- gardens full of fountains and flowers, statues, and birds fluttering around.

There is another interesting piece concerning the language of Teixcalaan. Some words had double meanings which made the interpretation of the language very interesting. There's also a big focus on poetry and drama and sagas told throughout the ages. Poets are very celebrated in this culture.

In the end- there is a lot to like about A Memory Called Empire, I just wish the plot structure had been tighter. I wish it had engaged me more, allowing me to solve the mystery and political intrigue along with Mahit. When I read this I was asking myself- what was the point? Why was this book written? And the answer circles back around to that first line. This is a novel about how one can love their own culture almost as much or more than they love their own and

This is labeled as book one, so I'm expecting there to be a sequel (perhaps to wrap up those loose ends). I think I would give it a try. I'm hoping with the debut out of the way, and with me understanding the politics a little better, I would enjoy book two more. It would definitely help if the plot was tightened up a bit.

Thank you to the kind people at Macmillan/Tor and GoodReads who sent me this as part of a giveaway.
Profile Image for Dave.
2,958 reviews309 followers
November 25, 2020
"A Memory Called Empire" is a densely-packed, detailed story of interstellar palace intrigue. Those expecting shoot-em-up action need to slow it down a little here. It's a very thick story that takes a while to be fully revealed. One of the central themes is past lives memory in the form of imago machines much like the past lives of Frank Herbert's Bene Gesserits and often a struggle for mind domination with a ghost from the past. Other themes involve how a minority culture on a distant frontier maintains its political and cultural independence in the face of a world-devouring empire that swallows up planets and absorbs the planet's technology and culture, spitting it back out as part of the empire's culture much as the world Hellenized under Alexander the Great or Romanized under the Roman Empire. Most of all, it's a story of a barbarian ambassador entering the empire's capital and learning slowly but surely how to negotiate the treacherous politics of an empire whose heart is being ripped asunder by internal strife and struggles for succession of an aging leader. Amazingly, it's a very interesting journey without a whole lot of bombs bursting in the air - well, maybe one or two.

Many thanks to the publisher for providing a copy for review.
Profile Image for Anthony.
Author 4 books1,816 followers
May 31, 2020
This is a dense, fascinating, strange exploration of diplomacy and otherness and culture clash that is packed to the gills with ideas and richly-conceived details. It is alternately vividly entertaining & somewhat obtuse, but I found myself more or less swept along the whole way. There is a tremendous amount that happens to the protagonist of this tale, and I can’t say that the cumulative emotional and physical effects of her jam packed adventures — some of which are downright traumatic — are always convincingly drawn. And there are probably a few too many words and phrases in italics throughout this novel, which seems to be a particular quirk of Martine’s, but that’s a relatively minor quibble.

This was one of the most celebrated SFF novels of 2019, and I can see why; it’s ambitious, confident, bold, and adventurous, much like its intrepid heroine, the naive but courageous ambassador sent into the middle of an empire on a very difficult assignment. I can also see why some of my bookworm friends weren’t as fond of it as I am; there’s something a bit distancing in the style Martine has used. But overall I’m impressed, and I will definitely continue reading this saga as its future volumes are released.
March 22, 2022
Surprisingly enough, this was not as disastrously deadly as I thought it would be after reading the first three pages. I was pretty sure this book was headed right into DNF graveyard territory, but lo and behold, I actually made it to the very end! And even slightly enjoyed it a little! Shock! Dismay! Discombobulation!



The pace is slower than an anaemic barnacle's and there's way too much a lot of showing instead of doing (and don't get me started on all the blah-blah-blah-ing) which is usually a suicide-inducing combination as far as I'm concerned. But here it worked for some strange reason. (Some very dark witchery must be at work, if you ask me.)

It probably helped that the world is Super Extra Original (SEO™). And quite fascinating, thank you very much. And deliciously complex, too. There's plenty of evil scheming and backstabilicious shenanigans abound, yay! And there's the Splendiferous Imago Line Thingie (SILT™), too! Oh, and in this world poetry is a political/encryption/Swiss Army knife-type tool! How cool is that, I ask you?! (Yes, this is a rhetorical question. No, you don't have to answer it.)

The cast of characters is most scrumpalicious and the dialogues (while sometimes neverending and occasionally coma-inducing 💤💤) are pretty great. And believe it or not, there's even some hahahahaha to be had. Shocking, I know.

Anything else to report? Well not really, no. But thanks for asking and stuff.

Nefarious Last Words (NLW™): I think that if Linesman and The Quantum Thief had a love child, they would name it A Memory Called Empire. Maybe.

· Book 2: A Desolation Called Peace ★★
Profile Image for Charlotte Kersten.
Author 3 books426 followers
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February 6, 2022
“Released, I am a spear in the hands of the sun.”

So What’s It About?

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.

What I Thought

I’d put my rating for this book at about a 3.5/5. I definitely couldn’t write a debut of such an impressive quality, but there were a few things that annoyed me about the book that I just couldn’t overlook throughout.

The portion of the book that is dedicated to political intrigue is thoroughly enjoyable. I loved piecing the story of Yskandr’s death together and it was really satisfying to understand how his story fits in with the troubles that plague Teixcalaan and Lsel Station. The book is also incredibly strong when it’s focusing on Mahit’s imposter syndrome and conflicted love for Teixcalaan. In some ways it reminds me of A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar with its excellent depiction of what it’s like to be drawn in by the allure of a powerful foreign empire, the desire to be part of something that is glorious and simultaneously bent on eating you whole – never quite belonging and yet wanting to so badly. It shows the often-inevitable (though, in this case, successfully-defied) encompassing reach of empire, the way that nothing touched by it stays the same. I will also say that I loved the ending with Mahit’s decision to return to Lsel. The book touches on themes of memory, identity and self-hood in different cultures – not to the extent that I came out of reading it with a lot of new ideas or concepts to chew on, but enough to keep me deeply engaged to be certain.

As for what didn’t work so well for me, one of my quibbles is that I think the book might be stronger if it spent a little more time exploring the anti-imperialists and the rebellion that is happening on Odile. These things are a part of the story to be sure, but we never really dive down into what they want, what their methods are and what their arguments are. It’s clear that Mahit doesn’t want her culture to be assimilated into Teixcalaan’s but I would have been interested to see an even more concrete understanding of this part of the story. As it stands, it feels like she spends too much time eating ice cream, going to poetry competitions and thinking about how cool the City is.

Another shortcoming to me is the fact that Mahit, Three Seagrass and Twelve Azalea all have incredibly similar manners of speech – this very droll/witty type of verbal sparring that makes them blur together and gets rather grating after a while. I never really felt the distinctions between their personalities and I never felt like they reacted understandably to events such as seeing a man explode in a bombing right before their eyes, getting tasered by the City to the point of unconsciousness, witnessing an incredibly close friend dying, and having transformative and illicit neurosurgery. They banter and they quip and they just seem so annoyingly…aloof from the actual happenings of the story, with a few exceptions.

I also think that Martine’s language is generally very beautiful and there are some aspects of the City that are amazingly well-evoked like its poetry and love of narrative, but sometimes things felt unnecessarily over-described to me to the detriment of the pace and my interest in the story. She also has a few writing tics that became deeply annoying to me, such as the overuse of italicized words and em-dashes. These were used to excessively that it started to take me out of the story when I noticed them.

Still, I’m VERY interested to learn about the alien threat at the edges of Lsel space and how Teixcalaan will weather the storm of its transfer in leadership, so I’m definitely planning to continue with the next book sometime soon. I am also hoping that some of the problems I had with this book will be smoothed out so I can focus on the impressive strengths of this world, story and author.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 58 books7,641 followers
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August 23, 2020
The praise and the prizes are well deserved. A tremendous read, with fabulous worldbuilding, deep humanity, great characters, heart-thumping tension, twisty politics, and an immense amount to think about. Cultural cringe, domination and appropriation, the way culture shapes our morality as well as how we understand things, often to mutual incomprehensibility, what even is 'personality' outside a culture when we're all composed of memory (our own and others) and our politico-social context. Which sounds heavy but isn't at all in the reading, it's just a book that gives you a lot to think about while you're thoroughly enjoying the exciting story. Excellent.
Profile Image for Aliette.
Author 257 books1,931 followers
November 29, 2018
An intricate, layered tale of empire, personal ambition, political obligations and interstellar intrigue. Vivid and delightfully inventive.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,095 reviews1,131 followers
June 27, 2022
This is a striking book, featuring on the one hand, a sophisticated writing style, big themes dealing with culture and empire and belonging, and characters who on a moment-to-moment level feel vivid and real. But on the other hand, there’s a distance to the characters kept me from fully connecting with them, and the political/diplomatic plot is one of the more ludicrously clueless that I’ve encountered, to the point I wish the author had scrapped that element entirely in favor of treating her themes from the point-of-view of a private citizen.

The novel features about a week in the life of Mahit Dzmare, a young woman from an independent mining-focused space station who is sent as the new ambassador to the ever-expanding galactic empire of Teixcalaan. The previous ambassador, Yskandr, died under mysterious circumstances, which Mahit must attempt to unravel while also protecting her station’s interests in the midst of the empire’s burgeoning succession crisis, figuring out who she can trust, and balancing her lifelong love of Teixcalaanli literature and culture with the threat to her homeland of the empire’s military and cultural hegemony.

For the first 100 pages or so I was hooked: the author’s prose is strong, vivid and artful, and the relationship between Mahit and the empire as played out in her own mind—to what extent she can ever belong there, and how her lack of belonging in a place she idealizes affects her, and the difference between the literature and the reality, and whether she can or should still love it so much after seeing the seedy underbelly—all this is the high point of the book. If you want a deeply felt look at the relationships between center and periphery, not forgetting about language differences and how easy it is to internalize someone else’s value system, you’ll likely find a lot to appreciate here. And the empire is drawn with a lot of complexity, with all its internal divisions and complicated history.

But after those 100 pages, I was less hooked. The setup is ridiculous, which I’ll get to, but there are other issues. While on paper there’s a lot happening in the plot, it sagged in the middle for me, and I don’t love these books where tons of life-changing events are all supposed to occur within the space of a week or two. But I suspect the real culprit is the characters. There’s more vividness and interiority to them than in much of the science fiction I’ve seen, and the dialogue is strong, but they’re all written with a certain distance (to the point that in scenes where Mahit was meant to be in physical pain, I often couldn’t tell). Maybe it’s an issue with how Martine writes feelings, or maybe it’s because all the major characters are a bit too cool for school, or maybe it’s because we don’t ever really learn anything about them outside of their professional lives, but I never fully connected with them.

Even Mahit—despite all the loving detail that goes into her emotional life vis-à-vis the Empire—is an odd blank. What personality traits is she meant to have, exactly? Who are the important people in her life? Was she even raised by her parents (whom we are told are alive, and nothing more) or are we playing the “in the future all children will be raised in institutions and it won’t hurt their psychological development at all!” game (also hinted at)? Did spending her childhood nerding out about Teixcalaanli literature make her a social outcast, or just a slightly weird kid who nonetheless had friends (there are indications in both directions)? What does she want for her future, outside of being in Teixcalaan? Who knows—the relationship with Teixcalaan seems to be her entire life.

And then there is that absurd setup/diplomatic plot, which is so obviously conceived by someone who lacks even the most passing knowledge of diplomacy, and couldn’t be bothered to research it, that it hurts to read—even to me, who has at best minimal knowledge of diplomacy. Buckle up kids, this will be long.

1) Most glaring is the fact that probably 80% of Mahit’s problems throughout the entire book would have been solved had her government followed the lead of every real-life government ever, and accompanied their ambassador by some sort of staff or retinue. Instead, she’s put in this bizarre situation where she’s completely isolated from everyone else from her country (apparently some are in the capital but never interact with her), has no one she can trust, no secure method of communication with home, no idea how things work, is completely dependent on the handler appointed for her by the Teixcalaanli government, and is absolutely clueless as to the most basic elements of her predecessor’s work: who his friends and allies were, what his political goals and plans were, the level to which he’d ingratiated himself with the Emperor and his inner circle—everything. All of this could have been averted with the appointment of a single trusty deputy or secretary, who would also have come in awfully handy in that three-month interregnum between ambassadors.

Now readers might be thinking, “but Lsel Station only has 30,000 people, maybe they can’t afford to give the ambassador even a single assistant?” I considered that too—but take Palau, a Pacific Island nation of only 18,000. Globally, it maintains 5 embassies, 3 consulates, and a permanent mission to the United Nations—and while I don’t know how many people staff each of these embassies, the website for the one in the U.S. lists three of them by name. Lsel Station apparently only has one diplomatic mission because Teixcalaan is the only power that matters, and this entire book is practically a parable for why being cheap with your diplomatic missions will leave you unable to act effectively and put your country’s interests and future at risk. Sadly, no one in the book ever realizes it.

2) Lsel has also put zero thought into the ambassadorial succession. They depend heavily on proprietary brain-download technology, and one of Mahit’s major problems is that the version of her predecessor’s brain that she has is 15 years out of date, because he could never afford the time to come home and provide another one. (Maybe he could have if he’d had staff.) And the reason she doesn’t have the current version? His murder isn’t the problem—his body is ready and waiting in the capital; getting the download just requires physical access. (Too bad he didn’t have staff to claim his body and send it home.) Way to plan for eventualities, Lsel Station.

3) Mahit doesn’t help her own case by running around clueless about the public activities of a public figure, despite inhabiting a technologically advanced society—what, will there be no search engines in the future? Simply typing Yskandr’s name into their version of Google News could have answered most of her crucial questions. (So could the staff. If they had them.)

4) Also, Mahit shows up to assume the ambassadorial role in this country, having no idea who the 84-year-old emperor’s successor is! And it’s not a secret: he cloned himself 10 years ago, and appointed two joint regents in highly publicized ceremonies. Did she get no briefing whatsoever? (No staff at home either.) For that matter, she’s idolized this country since childhood—can you imagine a lifelong Anglophile not knowing who Queen Elizabeth’s heir is?

5) As for Mahit’s supposed talents, she has the usual protagonist’s combination of below-average conversational skills, in terms of the ability and willingness to give socially appropriate responses, be patient and build rapport even when you don’t feel like it, with the preternatural ability to discern others’ “true” thoughts and feelings, even when those others are experienced politicians putting up a façade. This is important because we’re playing the “politics is a stoic-off” game, in which apparently being visibly shaken by being injured in a terrorist attack will hurt your credibility (unclear how, since the Teixcalaanli seem to have normal and expected emotional reactions to things—if Mahit can see it, cross-culturally, I’m sure everyone else can too). We’re repeatedly told that Mahit is good at this, but please. She doesn’t do her homework, she gives away state secrets for no reason, she lacks anything approaching the social skills diplomacy requires.... it’s a novel so she gets by on daring, but as a diplomat she’s awful.

Other assorted nonsense: the people who want to rob Yskandr’s body conveniently waiting until Mahit is around to stop them, despite having several months’ lead on her. Communication between Lsel and the capital alternately taking months or just a couple of days, depending on plot convenience. The medical practitioner who inexplicably leaves her unconscious patient alone after brain surgery, with no monitoring—she has no staff either—in order to personally collect and escort to her home her fellow underground subversives, without telling them that she has an Information Ministry agent sitting in her living room, so that they can then loudly protest and in the process reveal their illegal activities! There’s a level of incompetence indistinguishable from malice and this lady has achieved it both as a doctor and as an underground agent in one fell swoop. How is she not in prison by now? Or killed by her own comrades, who probably should get on that before she further compromises them? Oh, and somehow she can successfully install a neurological device she not only hasn’t studied but has never even heard of, on the first try? You get the idea.

I was also underwhelmed by the ending. A relationship turns romantic at the last minute that didn’t need to be, just to insert some romance I guess (though this is your standard sci-fi world where nobody has a partner and families don’t matter, so maybe we could allow that different types of relationships have value to them? …. Nah!), and Mahit’s final decision is unimpressive.

At any rate, certainly some promising elements here, but I didn’t love the plot and characters sufficiently to make up for the common sense cascade failure. I see why people like it—and the reality is that even my light exposure to politics and governance in the real world probably means I should never, ever read political fantasy (in my defense, this book is sold as being smart!). But I don’t plan to read the sequel.
Profile Image for Scott.
287 reviews289 followers
May 7, 2020
If you don’t have time to read this entire review, know one thing: Arkady Martine is riotously talented.

If you have time to read no further than this second line, know another: you should read this book.

If you’ve got this far, know a third thing: A Memory called Empire, is one of my favorite SF novels of the last twelve months.

That’s all you really need to know. If you love a good SF novel that is more than the pew-pew of laser pistols and the throaty roar of warp-drives, then a visit to your local bookseller is in order. Get a copy of Martine’s novel as soon as you can.

If, however, you would like to know more in order to justify your purchase, then read on.

A Memory called Empire, is a gem, the sort of thoughtful, smart and beautifully imagined SF that I hope to see more of in my favorite genre.

Martine has created a fascinating universe in her debut novel, centered around one great civilization whose singularity-like influence draws all around it inward.

This empire is Teixcalaan, and it is vast and powerful a devouring amoeba of irresistible power that dominates countless star systems and believes utterly in its own exceptionalism.

On the fringes of Teixcalaan are a group of space habitats, a major one of which is known as Lsel. These independent nations play a game on a razors edge – keeping themselves useful enough to their imperial neighbor to be guarantee plentiful trade, without becoming so essential that the eye of annexation will fix upon them.

Lsel’s ambassador to Teixcalaan has gone silent – possibly murdered - and the great empire demands a new emissary. Thrust into this role, years before her time is Mahit Dzmare, a scholar and aficionado of imperial culture. Teixcalaanli culture is complex, artistic and near impenetrable to outsiders without many years of language and cultural training - training which Mahit has excelled at.

Further complicating things is the presence in Mahit’s head of illicit technology - she carries within her a complete copy of her ambassadorial predecessor, something her hosts would take a dim view of should they discover it. With the dead ambassador in her thoughts Mahit travels to the distant empire to prevent her home from being conquered.

And so, with this setup, a brilliant story is told.

Mahit’s struggle as ambassador – negotiating treachery, politics and coups makes for some exciting reading. Mahit is an outsider in a foreign culture who dearly wants to be accepted as a native, but resents the fact that she never will be, and Martine writes this internal conflict really well, alongside the cruel machinations of politics and power. Mahit’s loneliness and her conflicting needs for friendship and caution make for an interesting, empathetic character.

Speaking of characters, Teixcalaan is is so lovingly detailed that is almost a protagonist itself. Martine’s empire reminds me a little of the Imperial Radch in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, but even more fully realized, alive and colorful. The cultural quirks of Martine’s civilization are fascinating – Teixcalaan is artistic, poetic, suffused with mythology and deeply in love with its own sophistication.

Anyway, this is the sort of SF I hope to see more of in the genre – it’s thoughtful, beautifully written and pacey. The plot is really engaging, the world that Martine builds is totally convincing, and there are some real moments of high tension when the stakes for Mahit hit the life-and death level.

If you like Science Fiction, then you can’t miss this one.


Five grasping, greedy, but kind of awesome evil empires out of five.


P.S: I’m not sure whether Martine intended her book to be an allegory, but for me it worked as one on an interesting personal level. Like many in the Anglosphere I grew up (in New Zealand) and live (in Australia) in a cultural world that to a large extent revolves around the empire known as the United States of America.

I watch US shows. I listen to US music. I studied US history at university. I have visited the US to enjoy American culture first-hand. I identified with Mahit as the outsider looking in on the dominant culture, and it isn’t a stretch to to see the Teixcalaan/Lsel relationship in aspects of the Australian/US connection.

While the USA is unlikely to suddenly annex Australia we live very much in the thrall of American power and some of the love/hate dynamic evident in Lsel’s engagement with Teixcalaan can be seen in Australian attitudes to our larger ally. We want more American culture, at the same time as we fear being swamped by it. We join American-led global programs, at the same time as we strive to achieve independent foreign policy goals.

And of course -just like in A Memory called Empire - other than Outback Steakhouse and Crocodile Dundee the cultural flow is largely one way, to Australia’s occasional embarrassment (US Presidents who forget who our leader is, Americans unable to locate Australia on a map, etc. etc.).

Anyway, I found this possible allegory to be another interesting aspect to an already very entertaining novel. Martine’s book is a great read.


P.P.S: I hope I never have to type the word 'Teixcalaan' ever again. I have absolutely no idea how it's pronounced and I spelled it four different ways in the first draft of this review...
Profile Image for Kelly.
878 reviews3,950 followers
August 15, 2020
Now *this* is what I ordered when I asked for palace intrigue. This is what I wanted when I was told I was getting a look at the mechanics of empire from an outsider just trying to make it in a bewildering labyrinth of political backstabbing and desperate power grabbing. And this one did it one better because we got what is most useful in empire stories, the thing I teach my kids over and over again in my global studies classes: how their foundation isn’t political, it’s the cultural programming that eats you from the core of your heart outwards. It’s the trick of making you feel inferior, of longing to be Other, even when you may love who you are. Your brain circuits just read empire back to you as better, as best, as where anyone worth their salt goes, as the only worthwhile compromise in town, as a seductive game you think you can outsmart it at. And so vanishingly few can, especially with prolonged exposure. The love story in this (all of them, really, romantic and metaphorical), was refreshingly complicated and a piece of the puzzle of becoming, not the only piece or even the biggest piece to matter. It’s the feeling I started to pick up after reading several books by early 20th century British authors who pronounce and opine and never seem to consider equivocating or putting parentheses around anything. Why would they? The confidence supreme of resting on absolute certainty of so many things is a killer confidence boost. The polite stare at the dinner party- well meaning but shocked. And the truth that there is really something beautiful there to love that makes it even harder to say no, to opt out of the system. And as if it needed to be even more relatable and relevant than all of that, the heroic characteristic the protagonists most need to win the day is not super strength, not laser eyes... it’s just their inexhaustible ability to keep working. That’s it. They’re basically saving a world with Millennial burnout work ethic and a forced smile and I don’t even think this was intentional but these are our heroes now y’all, and it works and I get that life far better than most heroes I grew up with. Instead of periodic knife fights the author periodically just flexes on how long it was since they slept or hydrated themselves and then has them *keep hustling*. And for the cherry on top, they’re cleaning up a Boomer mess of vanity, immortality and short-term thinking while not being able to totally hate any of them because hey- that’s Dad, you know? It’s all that guys, it’s just in space and if that makes you automatically write it off you are missing out. The spaceships don’t even matter except as a means of removing cell phone tech as a means of solving problems and making the scale even bigger so we can connect with it better and not dismiss it as an imperialist relic of a problem. The rest of this might as well be set in 19th century carriage drawn sun never sets colonies. Except very very much not because Martine made this so very deliberately an Aztec/Chinese empire mashup and it works *so well* for getting you into the outsider head instead of identifying with those in power and for so many other reasons. She did not choose those names for no reason, noooo she did not. Shades of Oscar Wao, but again, in space.

This book was great and restored my faith in the possibilities of SFF and you should read it and the end. Wow.
Profile Image for Alienor ✘ French Frowner ✘.
828 reviews3,676 followers
February 20, 2021


Review now up!

The best science-fiction novels steal your heart, squeeze it, and make an impact. 2021 is still a child learning to walk, but somehow in its first adventures it decided that it would be the year when I finally enjoy reading those novels, and I'm still reeling from the absolute bafflement it makes me feel, okay? Not liking science-fiction - not understanding its appeal - has been part of my reader DNA forever and honestly, I don't know if they just got better or if I've changed as a reader. Whatever it is does not matter, though. Not really. Mostly I'm glad - and a bit awe-struck - that there's now a kind of science-fiction novels that I will call favorites. A Memory Called Empire is part of them.

At its heart, A Memory Called Empire appeals to everyone who's ever felt like they didn't belong, not really. That their personality, to deserve love and respect, should change in subtle and not-subtle ways. I liked it, immensely, but I would be very wary about recommending it to every reader out there : there's no beating around the bush, it's wordy, and poetic, and intensely political. Characters talk, a lot. They also act, sure, and it's engrossing and fascinating, but it won't appeal to every reader but rather, will lose some of them while making other's hearts' bleed. I wasn't sure that I was that reader, because at times, I struggled. I was engrossed from page one but somewhere along the way, it lost me a bit, and I was watching my kindle progression like a hawk around 40%, when 10% felt like 50. Yet suddenly, it got better again. I felt like I got it.



So much political scheming, yes, but I wouldn't do this novel justice if I didn't talk about the yearning - every character feels it. Mahit, Three Seagrass, Yskandr, Twelve Azalea - they're all the different faces of a same coin, trying to find their place, to be part of something bigger than themselves. But what Mahit and Yskandr share feels more brittle, more heartbreaking, too - the desire, the need to survive amidst the whirlwind of an Empire that devours. Because really, that's what A Memory Called Empire is about : how cultural imperialism's appetite never falters and inhales, absorbs, annihilates everything in its path, bending reality in a way that favors its growth and doesn't care if it crushes you.



The relationships the characters nurture in order not to be so alone in this ruthless world are amazing, and parts of what I loved the most about A Memory Called Empire. I lived for Mahit and Three Seegrass' tentative friendship that slowly evolved into something more (did I say how much I liked the fact that science-fiction novels seem intent into giving us the sapphic content we deserve?) ; for Iskandr and Mahit's banter ; for the trio's growing trust, too. They made me feel so much, so fast.

And given how the ending played out - I absolutely loved everything about it, okay? - I'm more than impatient to come back to them. Truly a success.

It would mean the word to me if you'd visit my new blog
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