A Great Introduction to a Major New Talent

Arkady Martine got my attention by winning the 2020 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel, which was her 2019 debut scifi book, A Memory Called Empire. I was so captivated by the characters and the author’s writing style and talent that as soon as I finished A Memory Called Empire, I bought its sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, which I enjoyed even more. The attraction of these two books isn’t the science involved in them, which is minimal, or the creation of a future world, which is, in many respects, fairly stock for scifi, but rather the attraction is the author’s ability to tell a story and develop characters that grab and hold you, so you really care about everything that happens to them.

The main character in both books is Mahit Dzmare, a newly appointed ambassador from the space station/independent state Lsel, which is part of the Teixcalaanli Empire, which stretches over vast reaches of space, even beyond some of the jumpgates that open into regions of space far distant. Lsel station, basically a mining station, is tiny, containing only 30,000 people, but it has one thing no one else possesses, which is the Imago technology. The Imago is an attachment to a person’s brain that contains the uploaded memories of the consciousnesses of generations of predecessors who have occupied the same role in the Lsel society. The recipient has those memories, integrated more or less into his or her consciousness, to aid in performing his or her duties within the society. In Mahit’s case, the imago she uploads is a 20-year-old record of the brief memories of the previous Ambassador from Lsel, named Yskandr, who neglected to update his memories and recently died in the capital of Teixcalaan. 

Teixcalaan society is dominated both by its history of war and empire building and by its penchant for communicating through poetry. Mahit is given a special female attaché from the Teixcalaan government, named Three Seagrass, another deeply explored character in the novel, and they develop a relationship that, while tainted by mutual suspicion due to their representing two different cultures, becomes warm, close and, by the second novel, sexual.  Both Mahit and Three Seagrass are assertive, intelligent, creative women, who, by the second novel, become almost co-protagonists, they are both so appealing and important to the story.

In A Memory Called Empire, we explore Teixcalaan’s Imperial society and the plots that go on within it, discovering that Yskandr, the previous ambassador was murdered before he was able to give the secret of the Imago to the dying emperor who could then pass on his memories to his successor, and we learn of an ominous enemy that is destroying Teixcalaanli spaceships in the far regions of the empire. We also learn who some people on Lsel station are planning to use Teixcalaanli engagement in a war of long duration with the mysterious alien marauders to keep Teixcalaanli from threatening Lsel’s autonomy. 

When we get to the second novel, A Desolation Called Peace, the war with the aliens has begun and, as we learn that those aliens are not human and have an indecipherable language, we find that Three Seagrass has been tasked by the new emperor of Teixcalaan to try to learn how to communicate with them and avert a larger war. She asks Mahit Dzmare to help her. Together they travel to the flagship of the Teixcalaanli warfleet  and make contact with the aliens. Meanwhile, within the Teixcalaanli society and even within its military, there are plots to seize power, overthrow the Minister of Defense and possibly the emperor. The savior of the society, who emerges as a full-fledged third protagonist, is the 11-year-old successor of the previous emperor who is a 90% clone of that emperor but will not take power until he is of age. 

I won’t tell the rest of the story, since a great deal of its enjoyment is the suspense regarding how contact with the aliens will work out and what will happen to Three Seagrass and Mahit Dzmare, as well as whether Eight Antidote, the 11-year-old future emperor, will be successful or even survive as he works behind the scenes back in the capital of Teixcalaan. I found myself feeling deeply involved with the main characters, especially Mahit Dzmare, Three Seagrass and Eight Antidote. The author has an absolute gift for creating reader involvement with her characters. The plots and subplots within the Teixcalaanli imperial society are worthy of the Borgias, of Shakespeare’s Cassius and Brutus plotting behind Caesar’s back, or the in-fighting and plotting of Grave’s I, Claudius. Some of the poetic communications among the Teixcalaanli are striking. Arkady Martine  is a major literary talent whose decision to write science fiction is a fortunate one for all of us who love literature and especially love well-told tales that stir the imagination, as these two novels do. She reminds me of Ursula Leguin in her use of genuine literary style to tell a story that is pure fantasy. Her writing is filled with allusions, striking imagery, poetic sentences and deeply drawn and examined characters who are still able to strike feelings familiar to all of us as readers. She is likely to become a giant in the field and these two books are a great introduction to a major new talent.

Arkady Martine’s books may be found on Amazon

Do you love “mind-bending science fiction?” Read Casey Dorman’s Ezekiel’s Brain. Buy it on Amazon.

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