As a terrifying alien force invades Teixcalaanli space, maverick commander Nine Hibiscus is sent to stop them or die trying. When Three Seagrass responds to an urgent request from the beleaguered fleet, she invites Mahit to help her make contact and negotiate peace. But a quick end to a war between their two greatest threats isn’t in Lsel Station’s interests…
A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine’s Hugo-winning debut novel – burst out of the gate in a glory of world-building and intrigue, instantly winning me over. It’s also essential reading before you tackle A Desolation Called Peace: set a few months later, Desolation picks up relationships, plot points and themes from its predecessor, where context is critical to nuance.
…which sort of sums up Teixcalaan, really. The empire is an unstoppable juggernaut of military and cultural assimilation, which places great emphasis on symbolism and allusion. Where Memory focused on poetry, Desolation considers other ways in which you can encode meaning (a device that gets me right between the eyes, casually extending the world by making everything relevant. You thought those floral motifs were just an aesthetic preference?). Nuance is everything: but without context, you miss it.
Unfortunately for Teixcalaan – and specifically for the inhabitants of a small outpost on the edge of Stationer space – the enemy have no interest in context. You are either one of them, or meat. Creatures who stoop to primitive crutches like language are definitely meat. Yes, the empire has come up against an advanced force that is immune to poetry and very hungry.
In Teixcalaan, nothing is ever only one thing. A Desolation Called Peace is at once a thriller of Fleet politics and Ministry conspiracies; a diplomatic rollercoaster of first contact in service to the promise of peace; an exploration of individual identity, technology and the calculus of war (up to and including genocide); and a star-crossed sapphic romance. Sound like a lot? It could be in the wrong hands, but Martine’s deft pacing develops plot and character at compelling but manageable rate, whilst providing just enough context to let the reader appreciate those all-important nuances without ever feeling confronted by Basil Exposition.
This hinges partly on Mahit’s return as an outsider point of view, but also on the foregrounding of imperial heir Eight Antidote (aka Cure; and I will never get enough of Teixcalaanli pet names). Cure is a delightful point of view: an insider who is also an outsider, who is all grown up at the age of eleven – which is so much older than ten – except for when he isn’t. A clever kid playing at being the Emperor’s spy, he needs to figure things out – conveniently meaning he can spell them out for us barbarian readers – in a way that an adult civil servant wouldn’t. I was as fiercely attached to him as I was to Nine Hibiscus (give me a military leader maligned for her competence, sent to the battlefront because she might be dangerous enough to live, but it might be a blessing if she doesn’t).
Picking up where Memory left off, my beloved Three Seagrass returns – promoted and lonely, unable to sleep or write poetry, intercepting Nine Hibiscus’s urgent message and assigning herself to the Fleet. It’s not just an excuse to get into Stationer space and see Mahit. Not only that, at least. Mahit, meanwhile, has discovered that sometimes you can’t go home: Lsel Station is not a safe haven for a Teixcalaanli sympathist who has two versions of the same imago in her head – least of all when the first one was sabotaged by those tasked to preserve Lsel’s imago lines. Desperate to find leverage with the Council, Three Seagrass’s arrival gives her a much-needed out and a tenuous chance at survival – if she is willing to ultimately betray the Empire.
Mahit’s complicated relationship with Teixcalaan comes to a head here, played out through her conflicted response to Three Seagrass’s overtures, her frustrated rage heightened as she is dismissed as a barbarian – and worse, as Three Seagrass’s pet barbarian – at every turn. Three Seagrass ought to be clever enough to work out why Mahit is so angry, but she is blinded by her privilege of belonging to the Empire. She lacks the perspective to appreciate what Empire means to those who don’t.
Perspective is the sharp thread that binds many of the plot lines together. Even as Nine Hibiscus chides herself not to assume the aliens think as she does, she interprets their actions – and potential motivations – through a human lens. Similarly, military intelligence interpret her actions – and those of Mahit and Three Seagrass – through the lens of their own bureaucratic paranoia, seeing conspiracies everywhere. The lesson, in the end, is in the danger of encoding too much meaning – of reading too much into things – which no Teixcalaanli can resist, of course (ahem and no book blogger, either, obvs: ask me about the Kauraanian cat tribbles, I dare you).
Desolation contains so much of what I love: characters in precarious situations, caught in fraught relationships where attraction wars with mistrust and trust is a currency that buys loyalty in spite of the demands of duty. It is peppered with little emotional moments that sparkle like cut glass, placing poetic emphasis on points the reader might otherwise miss. In other words, this was feelings all the way down: big, complicated, sharp feelings of the sort I enjoy best.
I also appreciated the way the narrative set me up to feel conflicted about the outcome I wanted: the Empire is a ruthless colonising force that assimilates everything in its path, but at least doesn’t literally see everyone else as meat. While it’s almost impossible to root for, Darj Tarats seems impossibly naive to hope Lsel (itself shown to be deeply flawed) can survive its fall.
Eight Antidote is the glimmer of hope in this apparently zero-sum-game: young and idealistic, a promise that maybe – just maybe – there’s a chance that the Empire will shift away from a scorched earth approach to peace. If the Empire survives this invasion. If Cure survives to inherit the Empire.
High stakes drama played out against a carefully-crafted world that gains depth and texture every time you look away. If I read another space opera this year that I love this much, 2021 will have been exceptional.
I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review – many thanks to Black Crow PR and Tor Books.