Tor | 2019 (4 April) | 462p | Review copy | Buy the book
Ambassador Mahit Dzmare from Lsel space station is sent to the City, the glittering capital of the Texicalaanli world and its empire. Her mission is to prevent Texicalaan from taking over her planetless world, which is positioned in such a strategic place beside two gates. Beyond one is unknown space and Texicalaan is hungry for it. But Mahit faces an uphill struggle. To the people of Texicalaan, even though she is every bit as human as they are, Mahit is a barbarian. Her habits, even the way she smiles, are mocked by the Texicalaanli who pride themselves on their refinement and exquisite culture. Mahit craves this foreign world. She grew up immersed in it and now she can live it. But first there is the matter of her predecessor to deal with. Ambassador Yskandr, who had lived on Texicalaan for decades, is dead, presumed murdered, and Mahit suspects she knows why. Yskandr was in possession of a secret technology that the Texicalaanli would kill to own. Mahit has it, too. She doesn’t rate her chances of survival.
I love a good space opera and A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine’s debut novel, is a fine one. Its worldbuilding is superb, so richly layered and brilliantly thought through. The depth of this is indicated by the fact that the novel includes a brief essay on the pronunciation and writing system of the Texicalaanli language. Language is at the heart of Texicalaanli culture. Names are elaborate and very significant – and humorous at times – while people, the government, its institutions, rituals, all express themselves with poetry. People are supposed to learn vast tracts of verse off by heart and be ready to quote an edifying chunk of it at appropriate moments. Mahit prides herself on knowing vast reams of it. Yet she is still reminded repeatedly of her barbarian status. But this is a seductive place to be. The City is gorgeous, its people are beautiful, its food is delicious – although not to be trusted – its gatherings are luxurious and their readiness to love is generous. But then there’s the other side. This is an empire that believes itself superior, that knows it, that wants to be in control and it will walk over any barbarian in its way. In some ways the Texicalaanli remind me of the Romans with their complicated, symbolic names, their confidence in their superiority, their dismissal of others as barbarian and their hunger for conquest.
I loved Mahit, who is caught in the middle between her world and this beguiling place in which she finds herself. This is intensified by her feelings for her Texicalaanli liaison officer Three Seagrass, which are reciprocated. This friendship is beautifully depicted. The characterisation equals the worldbuilding – we meet so many fascinating, well-developed characters. The dead ambassador Yskandr overshadows events, as does the Lsel technology that unites Mahit with her predecessor. It’s all thoroughly engrossing.
It’s also action-packed. The novel takes place over just a few days and Mahit barely has time to draw breath when she arrives on the planet. It all explodes around her, sometimes literally. And because Arkady Martine makes us so invested in these characters, we’re caught up in it all from the beginning. The danger is very real. Not only on Texicalaan but also beyond. We’re given hints of something alien that menaces beyond the gate by Lsel Station, something that destroys everything that approaches it, that steals the essence of what makes the Lsel inhabitants unique. The emphasis in A Memory Called Empire is very much on Texicalaanli but I suspect that the next novel will reveal more about this intriguing darkness beyond the gate. I’m excited to read it!