March 02, 2021

A Desolation Called Peace

By Arkady Martine
Review by

It has been two months since Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass foiled an attempted military coup on Teixcalaan—and they may have started a war to do it.

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It has been two months since Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass foiled an attempted military coup on Teixcalaan—though they may have started a war to do it. Dzmare is back on her native Lsel Station, among her people but unsure if she still belongs there. Seagrass has a desk job; a prestigious one, to be sure, but a bore all the same, so when she lucks into a not-quite-legal chance for an adventure, and one that will bring her and Dzmare together again, she leaps at the chance. As diplomatic envoys to an uncommunicative alien armada, they must contend with a host of horrors, from a fleet of screaming, ship-eating aliens and deadly fleet politics to an infestation of cats and a lack of non-clichéd poetic imagery. And if they survive their privations, both military and literary, it is not at all clear whether either of them can truly go home again.

In her award-winning debut novel, A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine tackled the problem of communicating between cultures in a shared lingua franca, detailed an empire at war with itself and told of an intrigue involving Lsel Station’s memory-preserving imago-machines and one man’s quest for immortality. In A Desolation Called Peace, all of those themes have evolved in complexity, diving deeper into an intrigue about the very nature of life and death. The central cast is as appealing as ever, and the cats, described as “very friendly, if—sharp, on the ends” and “puddles of space without stars” are a delightful addition. 

Martine’s debut showcased her consummate skill and perfect blend of narrative, humor and world-building; her second effort highlights her thematic ambition, and her abilities as a writer are more than equal to the task. Desolation is the kind of book that crouches in your mind, waiting for a quiet moment. It is hard to read slowly, but demands to be savored, lest you miss some of the cleverest and most elegant foreshadowing in modern science fiction. Redolent with echoes of Frank Herbert’s Whipping Star, Iain M. Banks’s Excession and screen epics such as Arrival and Ronald D. Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica,” it nevertheless carries its own distinctive melody.

Arkady Martine’s first book was a deserving Hugo winner. Her second might eclipse it.

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