A Desolation Called Peace (2021) is Arkady Martine’s direct sequel to A Memory Called Empire, which was one of my favorite works in 2019. While not quite as strong, the standard being set so high simply means A Desolation Called Peace is an “excellent” rather than “great” read, and thus one that is easy to recommend.
As noted, this is a direct sequel, so you’ll definitely need to have read the first book before stepping into this one. The main characters — some familiar, some new — include:
- Mahit Dzmare: resident of Lsel Station and former (well, technically current, but it’s complicated) ambassador to Teixcalaan, a militaristic and culturally imperialistic force
- Yskandr: an “imago” of the last ambassador to Teixcalaan implanted in Mahit and thus another personality within her (again, “complicated”. Also why you need to read book one)
- Three Seagrass: a Teixcalaan Information officer and former liaison (and lover) of Mahit
- Eight Antidote: the imperial heir, an 11-year-old clone of the prior Emperor
- Nine Hibiscus: the leader of the fleet sent out to deal with the mysterious alien enemy introduced in book one
- Twenty Cicada: Nine Hibiscus’ second-in-command
- Sixteen Moonrise: a Fleet Captain under Nine Hibiscus’ command, though how seriously Moonrise takes that ranking is questionable
The story picks up with Mahit having returned home to Lsel Station for a brief time of trying to deal with how and why her Yskandr imago was sabotaged (see book one) and what will happen to her now. Meanwhile, Nine Hibiscus has finally engaged with the invisible enemy (no longer invisible). When she requests a diplomat from the Empire for an attempt at First Contact negotiation before jumping into a horrific war of attrition, Three Seagrass nominates herself for that role and takes off for deep space, stopping at Lsel Station to pick up Mahit, figuring a “barbarian” (as the Teixcalaan think of all non- Teixcalaan) might be helpful in understanding aliens.
While Three Seagrass and Mahit try to decipher intercepted communications from the aliens, then set up their first meeting, Nine Hibiscus and Eight Antidote have to deal with various factions within the fleet and the Empire respectively (and Lsel Station to a lesser extent) that may have differing agendas than peace or a quick ending to the war. As events unfold, the story shifts point of view amongst the major characters as well as the aliens who speak (no spoiler here as this is the opening chapter) in a plural “we” as a hive mind.
The novel succeeds on a simple plot level. The aliens are concisely yet plausibly and vividly presented as living, thinking, and unnerving creatures. Their physical description, their ability to seemingly appear out of nowhere, their weaponry, and the results of their attacks are all disturbing and thus create the necessary creepiness and tension, a tension further sharpened by the nearness of the opposed fleets to one another, facing off while the clock ticks on possible negotiation. Meanwhile, the political machinations enhance both the suspense and the sense of urgency, as do some other plot points, though I won’t go into details so as to avoid spoilers. There’s also a nice twist that reminded me of a classic old novel turned into a classic old movie, though I’ll just note that, again, without details as to which and why. That said, while there is a lot of tension, and some military engagement, this is more a cultural conflict/contact than a space opera war of lasers ping-pinging, etc. So if that’s your thing, maybe this plot will succeed less for you; personally I loved it.
Beyond the plot reasons, I loved that it was more a cultural conflict because that concept is at the heart of this duology: the way the Empire doesn’t simply conquer via its military but swamps others with its pervasive, relentless, invasive cultural tentacles (hmm, sound familiar?), the way the question of “who counts as human” (or more broadly, who can be considered a person) runs throughout the Empire on a macro level, and throughout the relationship between Mahit and Three Seagrass on a micro level. Here is one of their more bitter exchanges:
[Three Seagrass] “You think I said that because you can’t hear anything but one of us saying you aren’t Teixcalaanlitzlim whenever we speak to you.”
“Don’t you? … You remind me I’m a barbarian all the time … And not just you, Three Seagrass, the soldiers in the corridor too, but at least they have the honesty not to pretend that I’m anything but what Teixcalaan thinks I am. You? You want to give me uniforms and make me useful and have a clever almost-human barbarian to show off …
“I’m sorry about the uniforms … but you aren’t being —”
“Explicable? Understandable? Civilized?”
“Fuck … If you didn’t want to come with me here you didn’t have to … “
“When you figure out why I did have to come with you, we can talk again.”
It’s impossible to read these moments and not relate them to everyday existence for those forced to swim in the sea of a majority culture. This fraught tension is made all the richer for how Martine portrays (realistically) how seductive such cultural power is even for those it threatens to swamp, like falling in love with the waves that are trying to drown you. And then it gets under the skin and into the brain so it becomes almost second nature: “Mahit laughed, a raw sound … She couldn’t do it all. She thought in Teixcalaanli, in imperial-style metaphor and overdetermination. She’d had this whole conversation in their language.”
But no matter the type of submission — willing, unwilling, unconscious — , real assimilation or pretense to get along, it is never enough. In the oppressor’s eye or in those oppressed, who cannot help but see themselves through that same eye, resulting in the sheer exhausting constancy of such a life, the “double consciousness” that taints all, as when Mahit cannot join in a celebratory moment when Three Seagrass compliments her: “Am I human, then?” Mahit thought, bitter-sharp, and shoved the question away, unwanted. Couldn’t she enjoy this? Couldn’t she feel the same victory that Three Seagrass was feeling?”
It would have been simple to have just portrayed Mahit as an oppressed Other, or as one who resists the imperialistic, colonizing power to protect her own “side,” but Martine is interested in deeper, more nuanced exploration. And so rather than stand her ground at home, we see Mahit as exile in her own homeland, her whipsawed emotions almost unbearable at times: “exile happened in the heart and the mind long before it happened to the body that moved in space, across borders.”
Other themes are just as richly depicted, though this review is getting too long to go into them in any detail: the burden of responsibility, the easy rationalization of atrocity, the limits of language. Relationships are key and wonderfully mined, Mahit and Three Seagrass, yes, but also Nine Hibiscus and Twenty Cicada (my favorite relationship and favorite characters in the novel), Eight Antidote and the current Emperor. And relationship, as a broader concept, is key as well, and is nicely set up and played out through a series of plot echoes that enhance the concept (a method that itself becomes a major plot point). The writing, as with the first book, is consistently strong. There is less actual poetry than in book one but it’s only slightly less poetic despite that, resulting in my writing “nice” multiple times in my notes just as commentary on the language itself.
My complaints, such as they are, were small. In my review of A Memory Called Empire I noted the relationship felt unnecessary. Here it didn’t feel so much unnecessary as implausibly intrusive at times, with characters focused on their relationship or their recent sexual acts at moments I just didn’t buy, meaning they felt more like the hand of the author than the thoughts of the characters. But those moments, while jarring me out of the story, were brief and relatively few. The other problematic area was more substantive, in that the sections dealing with Lsel Station felt undeveloped, rushed, and even forced at times (or maybe not fully earned might be a better description). But again, those were minor moments both in terms of page space and plot impact, so not much of an issue.
A Desolation Called Peace ends in a way that resolves many issues, and really feels that it ends this particular story. But where the characters of book one and two fall leaves lots of room for further development, while the newer characters either present the same opportunity or offer up the possibility of back stories. The same holds true with the richly developed TEIXCALAAN universe, where I’d be happy to read more either forward or backward in time. Here’s hoping Martine isn’t finished playing in this particular sandbox. Highly recommended.