Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

A balance of ‘space-opera scope meets small-town girl’

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Tor Books; Reprint edition (February 25, 2020)
Language ‏ : ‎ English
Paperback ‏ : ‎ 480 pages
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1250186447
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1250186447

Price $14.31

Leading a solitary, somewhat reclusive existence as I do, I nevertheless keep an eye out for something good to read. And when that ‘something good’ just so happens to be a Hugo Awards winner and nominated for the Nebula & Locus Awards to boot? Well, I’d be silly to ignore it.

Let’s set the scene with the back cover blurb.

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Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident―or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion―all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret―one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life―or rescue it from annihilation.

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So, what’s the setting?

Mahit Dzmare is from a small, self-contained colony out of the edges of the vast Teixcalaanli Empire called Lsel. The colonists living there are a rather proud society who extend the depth of their cultural heritage by the use of IMAGO implants; tiny, sub dermal devices that allow the personality, skills and memories of important people and those with priceless skills to be ‘recorded’ and passed on to a suitably matched host. A rather novel concept that sets the scene for what’s to come.

How so?

Well, Imago technology doesn’t exist anywhere else in the empire, and its existence is a closely guarded secret among the Lsel. Baring that in mind, we’re introduced early on to Mahit Dzmare. The woman selected to replace the former ambassador to the Teixcalaanli court – Aghavn Yskandr – whose death, and the circumstances surrounding it, are suspiciously devoid of detail. (And this from a hi-tech future society where every aspect of life is recorded, analyzed, and used to update an almost omniscient planet-wide AI that serves the goals of the emperor).

Or does it?

Another hurdle is presented in that the imago devices should contain the very latest memories of the former recipient, but in Dzmare’s case, Yskandr hasn’t been home in fifteen years. So, not only is she unprepared to walk the political tightrope that awaits her, but she’s ill-placed to know who to trust in uncovering details of the former ambassador’s death.

And it’s THIS shortfall that lays the basis of our story.

One where Dzmare’s rose-tinted view of an idealistic, wonderfully balanced and cultured civilization is brought crashing down amid a cauldron of political ambition, imperialistic ideals, and outright xenophobia toward anyone who isn’t pure Teixcaannli. Yes, intrigue abounds in an adroitly crafted little whodunit murder-mystery-investigation that, while uncomplicated, remains intriguing enough for you to want to keep reading until you get to the bottom of the mystery.

I will admit that it took me a little while to get comfortable with Arkaday Martine’s writing style. But once I had, I found the story to be a pleasing balance of ‘space-opera scope meets small-town girl’ trying to keep her head above water in a place that will chew you up, sort through the bones, and spit you out if you let it. And Martine does that rather well, as you get the clear impression that while Dzmare almost drowns in an oceanlike society filled with legends- living and dead – epoch-spanning history, deep-seated partisan propaganda, and the very latest hi-tech wizardry, she’s never been more alone in her life. A very nice touch that helps to keep things real. And THAT’s important when you’re writing stories.

And equally important, of course, is bringing things to a close in a way that leaves you wanting more. Which, in this case, you can . . . with the follow-up novel: A Desolation Called Peace. (Which I will be reviewing next time, AND is nominated for this year’s Nebula awards).

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