I can see why A Memory Called Empire won the 2020 Hugo Best Novel Award. As a feat of imagination, it’s quite stunning.
The world-building, the technology ideas and the social structures are clever and vividly described.
It poses questions about the nature of self and whether we can stay truly human once we’re able to augment our bodies and or share the memories and thoughts of our predecessors.
It shows how an empire, any empire, taints anything it touches because it’s built on the corrupt self-serving premise that citizens of the empire are people and everyone else is a barbarian. It gives insights into how the poetry and art and culture that a great empire produces over generations of dominance, attract the conquered and the not-yet-conquered like beautiful, scented blooms hiding the thorns of a parasitic plant that will eventually strangle them.
In the Teixcalaan Empire, Arkady Martine has created something complex, beautiful and terrifying. A multi-system-spanning Empire won through conquest, held for thousands of years and still expanding, it is completely assured of the primacy of not just its military capability but its culture. From its roots in a blood-sacrifice culture similar to the Aztecs, it has grown into an elaborate culture of duty and sacrifice and artistic expression that drives constant expansion through military might.
We see this empire through the eyes of Ambassador Mahit Dzmare, newly arrived at the Emperor’s court, hastily dispatched to take up her post after the sudden and unexpected death of her predecessor. Her mission is to maintain the independence of the mining space stations that she represents. This mission is made harder by the fact that the secret technology which should have given her access to her predecessor’s memory and personality seems to have been sabotaged and by the refusal of the Teixcalaan authorities to disclose the circumstances of her predecessor’s death.
It seems to me that Ambassador Mahit Dzmare embodies the strengths and the limits of this book. She’s from the privileged elite of her own society. She is in love with the culture of the Teixcalaan Empire and could be an accomplished citizen of it had she not been a born a barbarian. She has one foot out the door of her own society but knows that she will never be anything but an outsider in the Teixcalaan Empire.
She is a diplomat, not a spy. She is on her first mission and is working in the dark thanks to apparent sabotage at home and secrecy at Court. She is more prone to introspection, insight and empathy than purposeful and decisive action. She is more of an observer than a doer. She is at the centre of the action but has very little agency.
She is a perfect example of how the Teixcalaan Empire preys on the talented amongst its enemies.
She’s also the reason why the book feels so static, the action so bloodless and why the main emotion is a sort of regretful ambivalence.
This is a book about how empires absorb and enrol but never really empower the elites of those they colonise or plan to colonise.
In those terms, it’s a very successful book but it’s also a ‘first world problems’ kind of book that never really engaged my emotions.
This was brought home to me when, immediately after reading this, I read The Space Between Worlds which showed me a privileged elite from the point of view of the marginalised and the oppressed.
Nevertheless, there was more than enough in this book to make me glad to have read it and to make me want to pick up the sequel.
I listened to the audiobook version, which helped me with the new-to-me pronunciations and added life to the art and culture of the Empire. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.
Arkady Martine is An American writer, historian, city planner and environmental activist, based out of Santa Fe. Her doctorate was in medieval Byzantine, global, and comparative history.
Her debut novel A Memory Of Empire won the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel. The second book in the series, A Desolation Called Peace was published in 2021.