Lsel Station has been trying to stave off the advances of the Teixcalaanli Empire for a long time. But with the request for a new Ambassador and the appointment of Mahit Dzmare–young, inexperienced, with an imago fifteen years out of date–the balance of power is shifting. When Mahit arrives in the capital of the Empire, she discovers a world she is fascinated and repulsed by, people she wants to and cannot trust. The previous Ambassador is dead, and his imago, which should help guide her, is malfunctioning. All she knows is that she is in over her head.
Given that A Memory Called Empire has been getting a ton of buzz from SF critics I trust, that I love potlical space opera, that amazing cover, and that it has some very obvious Ann Leckie influences (she contributed a front cover blurb, this is not a secret), I expected to love it from page one. But actually, it took me some time to ease in.
I mean, I liked Mahit immediately, and the culture of Teixcalaan is fascinating and beautiful. But I liked it more intellectually than emotionally, I kept thinking. This is all very mannered and interesting and tense, and I should like it. There’s poetry, and food, and complicated relationships to ambiguous and powerful people (Nineteen Adze) and the flashes of Yskandr are delightful and ridiculous. The world is rich and jarring and clearly the story thinks about empire and its effects far more than a lot of stories about empires do.
And yet, I really didn’t feel it in my spine or in my heart the way I did with Leckie or even Cherryh’s Foreigner books (another obvious influence! Mahit and Bren Cameron are definitely cousins of some sort). Or so I thought.
And all of a sudden, I felt this wave of emotion: anguish and horror and sorrow. All images and details that Martine had carefully woven into the story over the last few hundred pages, the rituals and customs and relationships and the weight of power and history and revolution and revolution’s limits. They crystallized into feeling and it all hurt. Even more so because it was Mahit’s emotion, but also Yskandr’s. And Nineteen Adze’s. And Three Seagrass’s.
So ultimately I’m not quite sure what to say about this book! I saw echoes of so many favorite authors–not only Leckie and Cherryh, but also Katherine Addison and Lois McMaster Bujold. Like all of them, A Memory Called Empire is telling a story about politics and diplomacy and what it means when two cultures are intertwined. Like Maia in Goblin Emperor or Bren, Mahit’s struggle centers around who to trust, and whether she truly can trust anyone. In some ways her actions come across as almost passive, and yet she is actually making active choices all the time. Sometimes it’s choosing to look like an uncivilized barbarian, sometimes it’s choosing to share information. Sometimes it’s [EXTREME SPOILER BUT YOU KNOW WHICH SCENE I MEAN, ARE ALL LSEL AMBASSADORS ADRENALINE SEEKERS, I MEAN COME ON, MAHIT].
But it’s telling a different kind of story as well. It deals much more closely with the simultaneous weight and danger of empire. (It’s also a lot more queer.) How can you love something that is also actively trying to destroy you? How can you form relationships when you’re not sure the other people even see you as a person? I think it’s a book that will reward rereading. And it looks like there’s a sequel coming next year, so rereading will definitely be in order before then.