A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

I would like to thank the publishers for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Tor

Published – Out Now

Price - £8.99 Kindle £16.99 Hardback

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare travels to the capital of the Teixcalaanli Empire, eager to take up her new post. But when she arrives, she discovers her peoples’ previous ambassador was murdered – and no one will admit it wasn’t an accident. Mahit must hunt down the killer, while somehow preventing the Empire from annexing her home: a small independent mining station.

Yet to achieve all this she must avoid assassination herself, while becoming enmeshed in the intrigues of the city-planet’s heart. And Mahit is hiding a deadly technological secret, one which might destroy her station and its way of life. Or it might save them from annihilation

When we use the term space opera we often focus on the HUGE – the fleets battling in the stars, the clash of civilisations and the fate of empires. People are still important however as we need those characters to root for and sometimes those, we want to see get their long-awaited appropriate punishment. A Memory Called Empire often has the space opera happening stage left and instead focuses the fate of one of the galaxy’s largest empires and a small space station being played out with a small group of intriguing players in a capital city where words and actions often are more powerful than any diabolical space weapon. Its such a refreshing approach I think it is clearly already Arkady Martine has written one of the best debuts in 2019.

Mahit is our lead character relatively young but delighted to finally leave Lsel; her space station home; and go to the Empire that since she was a child she has idolised; a place of culture, adventure and high technology. She has been unexpectedly quite early in her career been chosen to replace the previous ambassador Yskandr who no one back home has physically seen for fifteen years. Mahit arrives and considering her station’s relative unimportance is surprised to find herself almost immediately surrounded by some of the most powerful people in the Empire (including its Emperor and his likely successors to the throne). Yskandr appears to have been killed but what exactly would make him such a visible target and be seen as a threat to so many?  Mahit must both solve the mystery of the puzzle and stay alive long enough to potentially save her people from being moved from political allies to just another part of the Empire.

Into the mix we have the Empire’s best generals, one of its richest merchants, the Ministers for War and Information and one of the Emperor’s closest friends and advisors. Each group have the benefits of security teams, spyware, spies and all people Mahit would not usually be invited to speak directly to. Clearly Ambassador Yskadr was putting himself into a difficult position that exposed him to some powerful enemies. Mahit now needs to work out why and to who as everyone seems to think she too must be a powerful force that could shape the Empire’s next direction.

This book is very much focused on a study in power, diplomacy and language. Very early on we see that the Teixcalaanli people have over hundreds of years established a great fondness for using words and symbols to represent aims and themes. Their city-planet has a seventeen-thousand-line poem to promote its beauty; its fiction can promote themes of conquest or peace. What you wear can prove your allegiance. Mahit is in her element – she loves the Teixcalaanli culture even though to her eyes she is clearly not one of the Empire and often viewed as a barbarian however much she is versed in the culture. There is an interesting theme of colonialism – the people of Lsel are getting constantly given the propaganda of what the Empire wants people to see it as and at the same time its very clear those within see the other worlds as second class however much they may love the idea of Teixcalaanli life.

But the heart of the novel is the interactions between Mehit and her potential friends and foes. Mehit is extremely likeable and as we are privy to her internal thoughts and emotions, we see her fears and frustrations as a novice ambassador trying to keep her head above water.  Over just a week she meets each faction and needs to work out who she can trust.  Imagine a poker game where political intrigue and language are the cards and the fate of empires are the chips. Mehit has two key advantages. Firstly, there is the irrepressible Three Seagrass – her Teixcalaanli liaison – an absolutely fantastic character who is also out to prove herself to the wider Empire and government. Witty, doesn’t like to lose and clearly enjoys the intrigue of the Empire more than most.  Her growing relationship with Mahit is a beautiful interplay of language and hidden subtext. The other advantage Mehit has is an unheard-of technology in the Empire that culturally they would view as sacrilege – the imago – Mehit has a recording of Ambassador’s personality within her brain. Its from 15 years ago so not going to solve the murder and it doesn’t seem to be fully working but it gives her a few unusual insights in the games that have been going on in the city for decades that may save her. He is more of a rogue than the younger Mehit so the limited interactions they have within her brain make for interesting insights and moral choices.

It isn’t purely a battle of intrigue and wits there are people more than happy to try to go old school and kill Mehit and as she moves out of the government held parts of the city, we get a sign that not everyone within the Empire loves it. It makes for a very tense political thriller and as we are in the same boat as Mehit trying to find our way through this mystery not knowing if we can trust anyone puts the reader on edge. Codes, intrigue and politics are here the more interesting weapons than the battle fleets moving towards unknown targets.  This feels much closer to the works of Ann Leckie, Yoon Ha Lee and Lois McMaster Bujold as an examination of what makes a culture and government tick and how power or rebellions are created or exploited.

It’s a very self-contained story but there are enough elements that I would be intrigued how future elements of the Empire could be explored. Those wanting space battles will in this story be disappointed.  Those who enjoy battles of wits, political intrigue and language though should run not walk and snap a copy up.  I think this book will be rightly praised when we get to the end of the year lists!