Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire (2019) is one of the more ambitious books (and certainly debuts) I’ve read in some time, an ambition well within the author’s reach, it turns out. Richly layered, backgrounded with vividly intriguing world-building, nicely paced in the way it moves and unfolds, and filled with complex, engaging characters, it’s pretty much everything one can ask for in a book.
Most of the setting takes place on the capital world of the Teixcalaanli Empire, an aged (and aging), vast and powerful multi-system empire of wealth, technology, and “civilization” (as opposed to the barbarians outside its realm). The “Stationers,” so-called because they are bound not to a planet but to “one of the oldest continuously inhabited artificial worldlets,” have managed to retain their independence despite their proximity. What precipitates the events of the novel is the mysterious and sudden request for a new ambassador to replace the former one. Lsel Station chooses young Mahit Dzmare as the new diplomat, and as is usual for her people, she is implanted with an “imago,” a piece of neuro-technology that holds the personality/knowledge of her predecessor. All fields have imagos so that the wisdom of past experience is never lost, many able to trace their “knowledge heritage” through multiple generations. Unfortunately for Mahit, her imago of Yskander, the former ambassador, is 15 years out of date (the time span he’s spent on the capital, referred to only as “The City”) and, even worse, it’s a rush job, so she and “her” Yskander aren’t given the normal time to integrate their personalities and rules of the game. For instance, Yskander can, if he wishes and with her consent, control Mahit’s muscles, glands, etc., so the two “sharing” the body need to work smoothly together.
In short order Mahit lands in the City and learns (no spoiler here, as it’s revealed almost immediately) that Yskander is dead. The shock, or perhaps more sinisterly, something else, causes her imago to go dead, and so she is left “alone” to navigate the complex politics of the City and the Empire. And the times are complex indeed, as she’s arrived at a time that comes to all Empires: a time of question over succession with an aged Emperor, a time of border trouble (there’s always trouble on the borders), a time of civil unrest as the populace tries to determine what path the Empire should take forward. And of course, for Mahit, there’s also the question of the relationship of the hugely powerful Empire and her tiny, hopes-to-stay-uneaten Station. A question more complicated by her own love of Teixcalaanli culture (it was in fact this love of its poetry, its language, etc., that led her down the path to becoming an ambassador). This is an Empire that insinuates itself through culture as much or more than through its military might, employing a more insidious and “appealing” sort of power, which personally I find more interesting than the typical Evil Empire that is portrayed solely as evil, with no elements to it that might entice people to invite it in as opposed to being conquered.
Her personal conflict is one of the reasons Mahit is such a strong character, someone who is both enticed and enthralled by Teixcalaanli culture and also worries about being too enticed, as well as taking offense when her admiration is treated patronizingly, as when she explains her knowledge of Teixcalaanli literature:
…liking Teixcalaanli poetry was just being cultured, especially when one was barely an adult and sill spending all one’s time getting ready for the language aptitudes. Nevertheless, she disliked Nine Maize’s acknowledging smile, the condescension in his nod: of course new works were celebrated in backwater barbarian space.
This duality appears again when she’s faced by the internal police force, the Sunlit, who appear “in gleaming body armor, a vision out of every Teixcalaanli epic Mahit had ever loved as a child and every dystopian Stationer novel about the horrors of the encroaching Empire.” She both desires and fears to be consumed by Teixcalaanli culture. And the author doesn’t let her off the hook, forcing her eventually to choose between reveling in the long-anticipated joy of being submerged in a culture that views her as “barbaric,” or setting aside her love of the Empire’s brighter facets to face down its darker elements and stand up proudly for her own allegedly “backward” culture.
While this is one of the most interesting personal aspects of her character, and broadens out to raise questions of imperialism, colonialism, and assimilation. Martine wisely tethers all this, as well as other more abstract explorations of identity and self-determination, memory and tradition/heritage, mortality (the Teixcalaanli see the imago as an “immortality machine”), to a concrete, almost old-fashioned mystery that drives A Memory Called Empire’s plot as much as the Byzantine politics: who killed her predecessor and why? What was he up to and who feared his actions so much as to kill to stop him? This more basic plot is handled adroitly, with all the requisite twists and turns and information withholding and clandestine meetings and mysterious messages and the like, offering up as well more than a few action scenes — assassination attempts, chase scenes, riots, and even a shoot out.
All of which feel emotionally wrought not only for their basic plot points — will they get away while being chased, will they discover who was behind this murder, that bombing, this poisoning, etc. — but because Martine has surrounded Mahit with characters we quickly begin to care about. The sharply wry and incredibly determined Three Seagrass, Mahit’s cultural liaison; the impetuously charming Twelve Azalea, Three Seagrass’ old friend; and the terrifyingly, ruthlessly competent Nineteen Adze, high up in the political system of the Empire, though whether she is ally or enemy is never quite clear. The only slip here, from my perspective, was a potential romantic element that seemed wholly unnecessary, a tad implausible, or surprisingly predictable. One’s mileage may vary on that.
Beyond character and plot, as noted above the world-building is richly detailed, slowly unfolding over time as we learn more about the Empire as well as about Lsel Station. I love the prominence of poetry in Teixcalaanli culture and in A Memory Called Empire, employed, for instance, as code, but also used in highly public fashion at a poetry contest at court (because of course) to make a political scandal. And the writing is smooth, precise, and always in the right tenor/tone/style for the moment. I love, for instance, how Martine never lets us forget where Mahit comes from, as when she takes comfort in a tight space that reminds her of “the safe three-by-three-by-nine tube of [her room on the station] … Soundproof. Lockable … closed … safe.” Or when watching a riot, she’s at first entirely confused by what she is seeing: “People didn’t break things on Lsel — not property, not with cavalier abandon. The shell of a station was fragile, and if some part of the machinery of it snapped, people would die.”
Whatever missteps there are in A Memory Called Empire are few and far-between and relatively trivial. Martine has offered up a fantastically rich debut that resolves many questions but leaves bigger ones unanswered. It could end here, but I, for one, am happy to know a sequel is in the works, and look forward to its appearance.