A Memory Called Empire
by Arkady Martine
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I'm giving this page the series title of Teixcalaan, which refers to the interstellar empire at the heart of the story. I don't know when we can expect the second book, but I am very much interested in continuing the journey. When that happens I'll edit the header here and add the next title, but for now I want to try to explain how much I loved A Memory Called Empire. Arkady Martine is the pen name used for fiction by Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, who has a PhD in Byzantine history and a Masters in Classical Armenian, currently pursuing a Masters in Community Planning at the University of Maryland. Not being that familiar with the Byzantine period I can't be sure, but I suspect it informed a lot of the governmental and societal structure of the Teixcalaanli Empire. After all, in addition to it being the proper name of an historical empire, byzantine also has a definition of, "a system or situation excessively complicated, and typically involving a great deal of administrative detail." The history of the Teixcalaanli Empire and its leaders is learned and recounted in epic poems, and poetry is a common means of expressing political thought in everyday life, as well as being a major portion of the entertainment media. Several of the words used to describe poetic forms have Greek roots, but other words identifying governmental agencies seem to be original to this book.
Even though the majority of the action takes place within the empire, primarily on its home planet, the main character is not a Teixcalaanlitzlim. Mahit Dzmare is the newly appointed Ambassador from Lsel Station, which is independent. Lsel is an orbiting structure within a binary star system which has no habitable planets, although they are mineral rich. The stations mine the planets, moons, and asteroids of the system, the empire being their primary trade partner. The population of the stations has to be strictly controlled due to finite resources, and a technology has been developed that helps to retain the knowledge of past Stationers. The imago-machine, implanted near the brain stem, records memories, and each successive use of a partiuclar imago-machine informs its new user of the thoughts and actions of previous users. When Mahit is called to Teixcalaan she only has three months to adapt to the imago persona of the previous Ambassador, Yskandr Aghavn, whereas the typical period would be at least a year. She is also hampered by the fact that Yskandr had not been back to Lsel in fifteen years, so the imago memories she has to work with cover just his first five years of ambassadorial service. There has also been no communication with the real Yskandr for a while, so Mahit journeys to Teixcalaan ignorant of his fate and the diplomatic situation she will be inheriting. Shortly after her arrival she learns that Yskandr is dead, the official story being anaphylactic shock due to a food allergy, yet she, and imago-Yskandr, suspect murder. Mahit's situation becomes even more dire when her imago-machine malfunctions during the viewing of the body. At first she suspects imago-Yskandr is traumatized from seeing its dead body, but later events lead her to believe her imago-machine may have been sabotaged. But by whom, and for what purpose?
For her first few hours on Teixcallan she had the guidance of imago-Yskandr, now she has no access to his memories and is on her own. Like many other Stationers, she had learned a lot about the empire through its epic poems and other media, but is ignorant of much of the current political machinations of the various agencies. She is assigned a liason, the asekreta Three Seagrass, an agent of the Ministry of Information. Mahit had long been fascinated with the empire and its customs, and Three Seagrass is her mirror opposite, long fascinated with "barbarians," eager to learn more on her new assignment. Mahit requests a meeting with Yskandr's former liason, but that meeting is disrupted by a bombing which kills him. Was he the target, or was it intendend for her, and if so was it also connected to Yskandr's death? Three Seagrass is injured and taken to a hospital, but Mahit is taken into protective custody by the ezuazuacat Nineteen Adze, a high-level advisor to His Brilliance, Emperor Six Direction. Mahit is adrift without her imago-machine, ignorant of the many levels of Teixcalaanli government and military agencies, so she has no idea who to trust. Quite a few of them refuse to say Yskandr's death was not accidental, but she senses the unspoken implications. Then one of them blatantly admits their guilt, knowing she cannot prove it or do anything about it. What she doesn't know is if it's about annexing Lsel and other stations into the empire, or if it has more to do with internal conflicts about who will succeed Six Direction as Emperor. A disaffected faction is pushing for the yaotlek One Lightning, the military's supreme leader, to depose Six Direction by force if necessary. That would involve Lsel, since it is in close proximity to two jump-gates needed by the fleet for One Lightning's proposed military campaigns.
I had previously read the first two chapters when they were posted at tor.com, and while I liked them, I was thinking it might prove too dense to parse the political and social systems. But that notion was dispelled quickly as Martine opened it up with intriguing exposition as Mahit learns more about Teixcalaan and forms bonds with several of its citizens. Fascinating characters, intricate and nuanced political and social discourse, embedded within an intriguing, multi-layered mystery. Mahit had assumed Lsel's imago technology was a closely guarded secret, but then learns Yskandr had revealed it to select individuals. She is forced to continue with that revelation in order to maneuver her way through Teixcalaanli bureaucracy. Some have the mistaken notion it is a path to immortality, and she has a difficult time dissuading them of that opinion. Even if her imago-machine had not malfunctioned, she would not be another version of Yskandr, only enhanced by his experiences, not controlled by them. Mahit will decide her own destiny, and that applies even after she reacquires imago-Yskandr. She had developed several close relationships with Teixcalaanlitzlim, including the new Emperor, but ends her first Ambassadorship by returning to Lsel to sort out the different political factions there. I assume she will return to Teixcalaan in the future, or maybe it will be another Ambassador with an imago-Mahit to guide them. Wherever Ms. Martine wants to take the story, I'll follow.
No author works in a vacuum, they are informed and inspired by their other interests, whether that be the study of history or their own fictional readings. I wouldn't presume to say who influenced Martine, but I felt the echoes of a few recent genre works; Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy; the imago technology evoked memories of Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire; the focus on epic poems and dramatic works made me think of the narrative disorders in Malka Older's Centenal Cycle. Regardless of her inspirations, Martine has crafted a unique new narrative vision. I've read many excellent books this year alone, several of them debut novels. This is at the top of the list for now. Highly recommended.
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