Book Review: A Memory Called Empire

The problem with sending messages was that people responded to them, which meant one had to write more messages in reply.

— Page 128, A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

I first found out about this book in May of 2019 from Andrew Liptak’s review of it for The Verge. The premise of the book caught my attention and I immediately placed a hold for it in my city’s library system. I was finally able to get my hands on a copy in September of 2019. This book is popular and after having reading it, I can see why.

I cannot recall the last time I wrote a book review and I certainly do not remember if there are any formal structures defined for this sort of writing. So I will make the structure up as I see fit for this review.

Brevity and wit

The first thing I would like to talk about is Arkady’s writing style which I find to be absolutely delightful. I found myself smiling ear to ear while reading. Events are written in a descriptive and yet concise fashion. Dialogue between characters always imparts a sense of personality. Every time a new character was introduced I felt like I was in for a new exciting ride, even minor characters felt like they were important in this space opera.

There is also a certain amount of what I consider dry humour to some of the writing which I found very charming. It is deployed sparingly throughout the book and never feels like it has overstayed its welcome. Used with laser sharp purpose to lighten the mood in a book that deals with some extremely serious topics. Brevity is the soul of wit indeed.

In Character We Trust

Oh where do I even start with the characters in the book? Let us start with the names which are delightfully poetic. The Teixcalaanli naming convention is in the form of $number $noun and it makes for some amazing names. Eight Loop, One Lightning, Nine Propulsion, Thirty Larkspur, Thirty-Six All-Terrain Tundra Vehicle. That last one isn’t something I made up, it is the name of a Teixcalaanli citizen. When I first read that bit, I started cackling, what absurdity.

Now that we are done looking at the names, let’s talk about my favourite three characters, the main character Ambassador Mahit Dzmare, her cultural liason Three Seagrass and also her friend Twelve Azalea. It would be fair to say that Mahit and Three Seagrass are both main characters and their interactions throughout the entirety of the book are vital to the story. From their slow and awkward first meeting to the growing rapport and trust between them as the story progresses. It all feels extremely natural, Mahit, a stranger at the heart of empire, far from home, and so alone and Three Seagrass, a member of the Information Ministry with a fondness for poetry and non-citizens.

The friendship between Three Seagrass and Twelve Azalea is another example of Arkady being able to describe relationships in her writing in a fashion that does not feel overwrought. The use of pet names for each other (Petal and Reed), the gentle ribbing that is common amongst people who have been friends for a long time. All of it makes me very happy.

Thematic Conquest

One of the main themes of the book is Empire. Empire building with its conquest of lands far and wide. Annexation and the corresponding subsuming of cultures under the Empire’s banner.

As the book’s very helpful glossary points out:

Teixcalaan — The Empire, the world, coextensive with the known universe. (Adjectival form: Teixcalaanli; a person who is a citizen of Teixcalaan is a Teixcalaanlitzlim.)

It is this very Empire that Ambassador Mahit steps into. Coming from home on Lsel Station, a place not yet annexed by the empire, and yet valuable to them due to its resource extraction capabilities and also being between jump gates. If you have watched Star Trek DS9, it is sort of like why being near the wormhole is so important.

Mahit is always a stranger and uncomfortable, this much is portrayed directly and indirectly via allusions. At every step of the way she is made to feel like an outsider, a barbarian as the book puts it. She has studied the culture and language and yet she is and never will be one of them. Not a citizen. This is the world that she is trying to navigate throughout the course of the book.

The depiction of colonization and imperialism in this book is in my opinion one of the best I have read in a work of fiction. It is talked about openly but also with great care, respect and nuance. Hats off to the author for accomplishing this.

It Was But a Memory

Wrapping up this review, I would like to say that I wholeheartedly recommend this book to any one who enjoys science fiction. This has been a book that made me both smile and cry in equal measure. I cannot even remember the last time a book accomplished such a feat. I started writing this review immediately I finished reading the book which in itself should speak volumes about the quality of the work, it takes a lot of me to actually sit down and start writing a blog post.

I hope there is a sequel to this because I want to read more of Arkady’s work. Hell, I will take a completely book set in a completely different world, I want to see what else she can conjure up with her words.