TITLE: A Memory Called Empire
AUTHOR: Arkady Martine
RELEASED: April 2019; Tor
KEY INFO: Political science fiction, space opera, empire and imperialism, non-western setting, great world-building, political intrigue
REPRESENTATION: brown-skinned characters (side), female protagonist, f/f relationship (main), bisexual (side) with both male and female love interests, elderly (side)
Murder, attempted murder, poisoning, descriptions of blistering skin, bombing, pink mist, suicide, death, brain surgery, political violence
Synopsis: 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.
A Memory Called Empire was one of my most anticipated reads of 2019 as well as being one of the biggest sci-fi releases of this year so I was thrilled when I was approved for an ARC of it. The combination of the cover, the title and the synopsis immediately grabbed my attention and I just knew it was going to be something exciting and special. A Memory Called Empire is an impressive debut from Arkady Martine, a historian of the Byzantine Empire and city planner, who has skillfully woven together a fully-realized universe and an explosive plot.
🌌 “It is by such small degrees that a culture is devoured…”
The intricate world-building achieved by Arkady Martine in A Memory Called Empire is one of the things that makes this book so special and has resulted in a number of favourable reviews that compare it to the works of authors such as Ann Leckie, Isaac Asimov, Aliette de Bodard and Iain M. Banks. The rich depth that Arkady Martine has achieved here is incredibly impressive, especially considering that AMCE is her debut novel, and is one of the main reasons I would highly recommend this book.
Although the main bulk of the story follows Lsel ambassador Mahit Dzmare’s journey in Texicalaan over a period of just a few days, Martine is able to build up a vivid picture of Texicalaan (and life outside of the Empire) through carefully constructed layers of political, historical, cultural, linguistic, military, and scientific information. I could see how Martine used her knowledge of empires as a historian to cleverly weave these elements together to deliver a world which felt so real and immersive. The icing on the already delicious cake was Martine’s inclusion of document excerpts at the beginning of each chapter which helped to contextualise the empire within the wider universe as well as the brilliant linguistic guide at the back.
Alongside Mahit’s investigation over the sudden disappearance of Lsel’s previous ambassador to Teixcalaan and her discovery that she has stumbled into a dangerous nest of political unrest, Martine explores complex issues such as memory, citizenship, technology, surveillance, resistance, consciousness, mortality, assimilation, identity, heritage and, of course, empire and imperialism.
🖊️ Plot Pacing & Writing
Whilst there is a lot of fantastic things to say about AMCE, there were also a few things that I struggled with whilst reading it which held me back from rating it slightly higher. The main issues for me were to do with plot pacing and the writing itself.
The beginning and the end of AMCE are so packed with world-building, plot twists and character motivations that they quickly move the plot along in an enjoyable and absorbing way. However, AMCE starts to suffer from plot pacing problems towards the 50% mark and these pacing problems last for a significant section of the book until the factional tensions come to a head towards the end. Although the middle section contains a lot of important information which helps us to understand more about how and why things are the way that they are in the empire, I found myself starting to struggle to keep going at certain points.
Another minor issue that I found with AMCE is that although the writing is, on the whole, really well done there were times when the writing style seemed at odds with the rest of the book. On a few occasions, we have paragraphs which are comprised of very long sentences and are written in a disjointed manner. We also have sections, particularly later in the book where Mahit is speaking with her imago, where the writing becomes a lot more poetic and purple prose like, but this disappears and the writing returns to normal. Although it wasn’t a big issue, it caught my issue and disrupted my immersion in the story a few times.
💫 3.5 stars rounded up to 4
Because of the few issues with plot pacing and writing, I had initially planned to give this around 3.5 stars. However, the sheer intricacy and technical skill of Martine’s world-building makes AMCE definitely worth 4 stars and I can certainly forgive such a promising debut author for a few minor issues. AMCE is well-worth a read, especially for those of you who love detailed science-fiction and/or political science-fiction. Plus, with shining reviews from Ann Leckie, Aliette de Bodard, Martha Wells, and Yoon Ha Lee, AMCE is not a book you want to miss out on.
A big thank you to Tor for allowing me to read an advanced reader copy of A Memory Called Empire in exchange for an honest review. This has in no way influenced my review.