Arkady Martine has, with one stunning novel, cemented herself among the Science Fiction greats. That’s hardly hyperbole—A Memory Called Empire deserves all its accolades, including the Nebula award for best novel of 2019 and Hugo award for 2020. Compared to the genre as a whole, A Memory Called Empire is fast. Fast like a heart-pounding, adrenaline-rich action thriller, not to mention genuinely funny, emotional, and meticulously constructed.
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.
ACTION AND LINGUISTICS: A MATCH ONLY POSSIBLE IN TEIXCALAAN
Not everyone in the City loves the City. Not everyone in the world loves the world, civilization is not coextensive with the known universe for someone, someone with a bomb who doesn’t care about civilian deaths…
In Teixcalaani, the word for “city” also means “the world” and also means “empire.” Through our heroine Mahit, a foreigner “barbarian” to the heart of the vast Teixcalaani empire, the reader learns about a vibrant, fascinating, wholly original culture through its language. It is beyond delightful. The constant attention to linguistic meaning—as well as through facial expression, body language, and ceremony—turns a brilliantly imagined universe into something that feels real and challenging.
Mahit’s foreignness is just another obstacle to a whirlwind book that somehow manages to be political, philosophical, and intensely fast-paced and action-packed. The whole book is threaded with the urgency of an uber-powerful empire in tumult. In order to protect her home, Mahit dodges assassination attempts, solves murder mysteries, makes shady deals with resistance figures, and weaves a delicate political dance that assumes an intelligent and keyed-in reader. Martine manages to integrate a James Bond, John Wick-esque tone into a fully-fledged Science Fiction political thriller, and I am in awe.
LET’S HEAR IT FOR QUIPS!
And the characters! The first time I laughed out loud at this book was the moment our two main characters make fun of someone seriously named Thirty-Six All-Terrain Tundra Vehicle. Teixcalaani names all start with a number and then include some kind of object or plant, but that name is just absurd. Some of the more normal ones, which I got used to eventually, include Three Seagrass, One Lightning, and Two Rosewood.
The point is, these characters are funny. They’re quippy. This is the holy grail: a Very Serious Book that will also make you laugh out loud. Not to mention Martine’s writing style in general, which sparkles with personality and exquisitely employed italicises.
Plus, you come to really love these characters. They’re so different from us, but so human, and their responses are so human, that they ingratiate themselves nearly as quickly as any characters I’ve ever read.
I cannot recommend this book enough. Even if you are not a science fiction fan, this is a fantastic place to start.