Mahit Dzmare, ambassador from the small mining station Lsel to the behemoth Teixcalaan Empire, carries the memories of her late predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn, in her mind. Until those memories are forcefully and inexplicably removed, leaving her abandoned on a world whose people speak in poetic allusions; name themselves after flowers, abstract concepts and sometimes vehicles or appliances; are dealing with a looming war of succession; and want her dead more frequently than is, strictly speaking, healthy. Mahit must navigate this lethal maze and maintain her independence while choosing the right allies to keep her home from being devoured by the ever-hungry Teixcalaanli fleet. And all while searching for a way to regain her connection to Yskandr’s knowledge and guidance without of course, telling anyone she’d ever had such access.
A Memory Called Empire is a political thriller inspired by the Byzantine Empire and featuring plot points reminiscent of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”’s Trill symbionts and the linguistic games of Frank Herbert’s Whipping Star. It is science fiction, and is certainly operatic in scope, but calling it a space opera seems like cheating somehow, as if there’s something being left out. Arkady Martine’s prose is an incisive, self-aware blend of tense action and delightful humor. Scenes extolling the virtues of alcohol when forced to praise bad poetry and mocking an otherwise irrelevant character that named themselves after a snowmobile are sprinkled liberally amongst the murder attempts and diplomatic machinations. A Memory Called Empire is dense, packed full of ulterior motives and subplots and beautifully realized characters, but its variety makes it eminently readable.
But the most memorable aspect of Martine’s debut may be the society she has crafted. Teixcalaan is utterly fascinating, its libertine self-image and obsession with art and style mixed with an almost superstitious fear of the human mind. Its veneer of gentility, elegance and enlightenment is profoundly fragile, and all the more precious for it. Smiling with one’s mouth is gauche, but it is also deeply personal. Mastery of allusion and subtext are such clear markers of social and political power that only the highest and the lowest in Teixcalaanli society dare speak plainly. The empire is the center of civilization, surrounded by barbarians who live on space stations and burn and recycle their dead, and yet in times of civil war, its inhabitants commit ritual suicide to earn the favor of gods they don’t quite believe in. They fear the depths of the human psyche, yet live in a city and under the protection of a police force that are both controlled by an artificial intelligence.
Imperial Teixcalaan is a brilliantly realized world of contradictions, and A Memory Called Empire is filled with poets, politicians, spies, soldiers and a thousand degrees of moral ambiguity. Oh, and some of the best names in all of science fiction.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Arkady Martine about A Memory Called Empire.