If you want to know if this novel is worth your time, let me state at the outset: A Memory Called Empire is delightful and you should read it.
In this blogpost I discuss Martine’s use of language in the novel. I don’t get into her world-building, which is excellent. The novel is set in a universe with depth for a lifetime of stories.
I will pick up the sequel as soon as it’s published.
There are no spoilers below.
“Arkady Martine” is the penname of Dr AnnaLinden Weller. In this review I will refer to the author by her penname.
Arkady Martine • A Memory Called Empire • 2019 science-fiction novel about an ambassador from a small station to a large empire.
A Memory Called Empire places linguistic and social nuance at the heart of a political thriller.
There is a small mining station called Lsel. On Lsel they use imago-machines – recordings of a person’s memory – to pass on vital information to that person’s successor. The imago-machines are implanted in the brain stem and the multiple personalities must learn to coexist.
The vast and ancient Teixcalaan Empire requires a new ambassador from Lsel. The previous ambassador, Yskandr Aghavn, is missing or dead. He was ambassador for 20 years and had only returned to Lsel to update his imago-machine 15 years ago, leaving it critically out of date.
Mahit Dzmare is chosen as new ambassador. She has been infatuated with Teixcalaan culture and history since childhood and her personality is compatible with Yskandr’s. She goes to the heart-planet of the Empire, the City, without having time to properly assimilate the out of date Yskandr.
In the Teixcalaanli language there is one word for “empire,” “the City” and “world”: “One had to note the context.” Mahit goes to the City and is met by her liaison, Three Seagrass.
There she must negotiate with the most powerful Teixcalaanlitzlim to protect Lsel Station from the imperial ambitions of Teixcalaan.
At the same time an unknown and incredibly powerful alien race is destroying Lsel ships.
From this premise Martine builds a propulsive novel of deception.
Mahit must uncover what is meant, what has happened and is happening, what the actors desire. While there is a heavy dose of the thrilling action you find in espionage novels, much of the plot is given over to Mahit adapting to and engaging in the subtleties of Teixcalaanli culture.
Teixcalaan has a deep lineage of literature, especially poetry. Educated members of society – among whom Mahit mingles – reference this tradition constantly. On top of the allusions they also speak with elusive subtlety, never saying directly what they mean, and their body language is foreign to Mahit.
Learning to interpret properly thus becomes the driving force of her journey.
Though Mahit had immersed herself in the literature and language since childhood she is still at a grave disadvantage.
“You do devour. Isn’t that what we’re talking about? A war of annexation.”
“It’s not—devour would be if we were xenophobes or genocides, if we didn’t bring new territories into the Empire.”
Into the world. Shift the pronunciation of the verb, and Three Seagrass could have been saying if we didn’t make new territories real, but Mahit knew what she meant: all the ways that being part of Teixcalaan gave a planet or a station prosperity. Economic, cultural—take a Teixcalaanli name, be a citizen. Speak poetry.
Poetry in science-fiction is typically less than successful. What a blessing then to have a writer who is deft at discussing the mechanics of poetry and how meaning is created in poetry. Martine writes some wonderful verse, which is important as it is used at crucial moments, including the marvellous climax.
Another blessing: Martine, who is a historian of the Byzantine Empire, also understands how cultures shift over realistic time-scales, how complex and irreducible they can be.
Adapting to the relentless subtlety of a foreign culture wears on Mahit, even as she revels in being there in the centre of the Empire she dreamed of as a child. She is placed in a swirl of forces and must adapt.
Mahit was so very tired of disambiguating between the tiny shades in meaning between one Teixcalaanli phrase and another, the effort it took to rearrange the emphasis of a sentence to render it accurate.
Adaptation changes her.
Was there even such a thing as Mahit Dzmare, in the context of a Teixcalaanli city, a Teixcalaanli language, Teixcalaanli politics infecting her all through, like an imago she wasn’t suited for, tendrils of memory and experience growing into her like the infiltrates of some fast-growing fungus.
The development of the politics is mirrored by Mahit’s personal development. This is not to say, however, that everything in the novel revolves around Mahit. While her actions are consequential, the ambitions, emotions, and force of multiple actors and societies are blended into a convincing whole.
Martine’s writing is never less than excellent. It is a serious challenge she set herself: to require constant linguistic subtlety while maintaining a propulsive plot.
Her success is made clear by how the reader adapts to Martine’s method of conveying information. Dialogue and poetry become puzzles for the reader to interpret as much as for the characters.
A Memory Called Empire is a delight to experience.
One final note: Martine loves to italicize words. Not merely to indicate thoughts or foreign words or to emphasize speech: she uses italics all over the place. They give the prose a pleasant, idiosyncratic rhythm.