When Teixcalaan requests a new ambassador from Lsel Station and refuses to say why, the Council assume the worst. But it’s far worse than that…
I’ve been excited to pick up Arkady Martine’s debut ever since Aliette de Bodard enthused about it at our SciFiMonth round table last year. Tackling themes of identity, colonialism, civilisation and ambition, it’s a heady mix of intimate character work and sweeping world-building. Yes, folks, I loved it.
Lsel Station is a small independent state that thrives on natural resources and control of two jump gates. Its people know mining, space flight, and unusual technology. Embedded in their brains, they carry imago machines, the recorded memories of one or more Stationers, carefully selected for psychological compatibility and integrated over time with judicious psychotherapy. It is a privilege to inherit and continue a respected imago line, as well as an obligation to do it justice.
But new Ambassador Mahit Dzmare carries a freshly-installed imago that’s fifteen years out of date. Yskandr Aghavn was the first Ambassador to Teixcalaan, selected – and mistrusted – for his affinity for Teixcalaanli culture. While he has successfully kept the ever-expanding empire out of Stationer space, this older copy of his personality has no idea how he did it.
I loved the imago concept immediately: a fully sentient personality within Mahit’s consciousness, capable of conversing and at times exercising physical control over their now-shared body. Mahit and Yskandr are intended to form a composite, and a key question of the narrative is the extent to which this newly-compiled person remains an individual. If we are the sum of our memories, how do you remain yourself if you inherit someone else’s memories?
Forget the pressure of tradition: this is having your (professional, not biological) predecessors directly in your head, telling you what they would do. The integration process prevents you from being swept away by the weight of their experience and the strength of their convictions, your imago giving you knowledge, perspective and instinctive responses that you haven’t yet had time to acquire for yourself. Or at least, that’s the idea.
Thankfully, this plays out rather more Machineries of Empire than Dollhouse – the imagos are separate personalities, not an imprint that dominates their new host – because I quickly grew to love Mahit Dzmare. She has a lifelong love of Teixcalaan and is so very excited to go to the City.
At the same time, she’s intimately aware of the threat they pose to Stationer way of life. Teixcalaan is an expanding empire with an enormous fleet. Should they ever turn acquisitive eyes on Lsel space (guess what’s going to happen, folks), there can be no resisting the force they will bring to bear. In Teixcalaanli, the word for city is the word for world is the word for empire (I couldn’t help but think there once was a dream that was Rome, but Teixcalaan is very definitely not modelled on the Roman empire beyond this one similarity).
We see Teixcalaan through Mahit’s enamoured eyes: the imposing structures of empire, its culture of memory and poetry, its unquestioning attitude of imperial superiority. In spite of her affection for it, Mahit is capable of seeing and capitalising on its flaws.
For example: Teixcalaan is a world where Mahit does not exist. Only citizens are real to the AI that runs the city. Without a cloudhook (which only a citizen may possess), doors quite literally will not open to her. She can’t even read her own mail. She is a barbarian in the city, and I loved her all the more for cold-bloodedly playing the part to get what she needs from people predisposed to underestimate her.
Needless to say, A Memory Called Empire has plenty to say about dominant cultures, colonial attitudes, erasure, control and resistance.
When her poorly-incorporated imago machine malfunctions (because of course it does), Mahit is isolated and in need of allies in a world that is hostile by default. Enter her ‘cultural liaison’ and my latest fictional crush Three Seagrass – as clever and manipulative as Mahit herself and surprisingly keen to help. I enjoyed the uncertainty surrounding Three Seagrass’s motivations (and her friend Twelve Azalea’s – although Petal is what my aunt-out-law calls her satnav, so his nickname caused endless hilarity) and her effortless competence at Getting Shit Done. In fact, the two young Teixcalaanli civil servants have a whole-hearted enthusiasm for subterfuge and politics that is both adorable and disturbing. When Mahit finds herself adopted (or kidnapped) by the powers that be, she needs every slender advantage her tenuous allies can provide.
I was never overwhelmed by the impressive edifice of world-building and political commentary that Memory requires to carry its plot. While it introduces concepts and characters quickly, the narrative remains tightly focused on Mahit. She reflects on each development, ensuring that things always make sense (in fact my only criticism of Memory would be that perhaps there’s too much hand-holding. I appreciated it, but I also wanted the joy of seeing through the politics for myself rather than having them explained to me. But you know I’m inconsistent and impossible to please).
And the intimacy of Mahit’s narration was a winner for me. In addition to her challenges of solving Yskandr’s death and preserving the sovereignty of Stationer space, her personal circumstances are nigh-on overwhelming. She is far from home without guidance as the political heart of the galaxy prepares to eat itself; she’s fairly certain she’s been sabotaged by her own people; and she is constantly confronted by the gap between being a Teixcalaanli citizen and being an alien admirer of their culture (a third culture kid myself, this hit me hard).
A Memory Called Empire begins with a mystery (what happened to Yskandr Aghavn) and quickly develops into a political thriller (how to keep Teixcalaan out of Stationer space) as the cracks within the edifice of empire begin to show (because the Emperor is dying). It never flags, escalating the tension by degrees as Arkady Martine pulls together the many threads of her carefully-constructed spiderweb. Everything becomes relevant, everything is personal – and political (yes, I can hear Richard Morgan snarling the personal is political, thank you Quell). And in the end, because this is Teixcalaan, everything is poetic.
I’ve bared scratched the surface of the many elements Arkady Martine brings together, but they combine into a rich stew of delights that left me aching for more.
A gorgeously constructed debut from a fascinating new voice in space opera. Read it. Read it now.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. My deepest apologies it has taken so long to actually read and review it.