I love space opera. I particularly love post-colonial space opera of the kind that Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee have been writing. So Arkady Martine‘s novel A Memory Called Empire (review copy from Tor) was always going to pique my interest. Add to that a main character who is a diplomat, and this is right in my wheelhouse. And I loved it.
Mahit Dzmare is sent from the tiny independent mining station of Lsel to be the new ambassador to the Teixcalaanli Empire. Lsel is tiny, and Mahit’s main mission is to prevent her home from being swallowed up by the Empire, whilst investigating the mysterious disappearance and murder of her predecessor. Mahit has been selected for her love of Teixcalaanli culture, and her knowledge of its society. That and her psychological compatibility with the last ambassador, as she will carry an embedded device with a download of his knowledge and memories, adding her own to the store.
These themes of identity run through the novel extremely strongly. Mahit is a product of her childhood on Lsel, and her study of Teixcalaanli culture, but she also carries the memories and reactions of her ambassador predecessor within her. These rise up at odd moments, to the point where she sometimes struggles to disentangle her thoughts and feelings from sense memories and the reactions of her predecessor. Much of that plays out through Mahit’s sexuality – she experiences flashes of her predecessor’s desire and his memories of sexual encounters, muddying Mahit’s own burgeoning feelings.
Mahit’s love for the Empire’s culture and her joy at being able to visit it and experience it at first hand wars with her mission to protect Lsel’s independence. This tension runs throughout the novel, as Mahit is confronted with the difference between her experience and the reality of Teixcalaanli culture for those born and raised within it. She regularly fails to appreciate the subtleties and nuances around her, never more so that when she is bewildered by the layering of sophistication of the Empire’s poetry.
Mahit finds herself plunged into the heart of a succession crisis for the Empire, as the aging Emperor’s health begins to fail and various rivals start jockeying for position. War seems inevitable, with Lsel one of the possible casualties as the various rivals seek to cement their claims. She has to navigate her way through this, brokering Lsel’s safety through political turmoil. In this she is assisted by ambitious young civil servant Three Seagrass, who has been appointed as her liaison to the Empire. Three Seagrass is herself walking a fine line between her loyalty to Teixcalaan, her own personal ambition, and her duties supporting Mahit.
It’s an incredibly satisfying novel that leaves me extremely excited about the next book in the series.
Goodreads rating: 5*