|A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine|
|Category: Science Fiction|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: A near-perfect debut – part SciFi, part political thriller, slightly marred by being a little too clever – but those bits can be skimmed, and if you do so, it’s a superb read.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 464||Date: April 2019|
|External links: Author's website|
|ISBN: 978-1529001570 978-1529001570|
The problem with Martine's fiction debut is that she makes the two commonest errors in SF writing: she tries to be too clever and she wants her fictional languages to be complex and rich and errs on the side of making them unpronounceable by most readers. I can see why she does both, but it's a disappointment because they're the blocks against which the brilliance of the book stumbles.
Language and poetry are at the heart of the story, so the language has to feature heavily, it has to be strange, but it is a step too far when every time the title ezuazuacat' or the descriptor Teixcalaanliztlim brought me up short, halting the action, stalling the emotion. Even the simple Teixcalaanli which appears every two or three pages took me till well near the end of the 400-odd pages to get my mental tongue around. The pity of it is that elsewhere she keeps the foreign-ness within bounds asekreta, ikantlos, ixplanatl – unfamiliar spellings, unreal words, but close enough for us not only to be able to read them without stumbling, but even to be able to guess at translations for them.
The other bit of clever is to begin every chapter with an excerpt from a news report, or a classic of imagined literature, or a diplomatic message. These serve to give back-story: either history or 'meanwhile in another part of the star system'…but they're not necessary and for this reader, so counter-productive that I simply stopped reading them at all. I wasn't interested. I wanted to know what was happening now. I wanted to know where Mahit, and Three Seagrass were. I wanted to know what was happening in the City…who was trying to kill who, and why, and whether they would succeed. I wanted to know whether Mahit's failed imago would ever re-start or whether she'd have to face her tenure on this strange planet, the first planet she'd ever been on, completely alone.
Once you accept that – with apologies to the author – you can skim over the unnecessariness, the story and the world in which it is set become captivating. I spent the first few chapters thinking…no…not really…but it drew me in, and then I couldn’t help but hurry back to it whenever I'd had to put it down.
Ambassador Mahit Dzmare is new to the job. New, because her predecessor Yskandr Aghavn, has gone silent and the Empire has demanded a replacement. On the Lsel Station, the only home Mahit has ever known, no-one knows what has happened to Yskandr. They do know however that he had declined to come home at the normal intervals to download his memories. The imago device that Mahit carries attached to her brainstem is therefore 15 years out of date. Not only that, but she has not had the normal time interval to get used to sharing her head with another person…although, that's a crude approximation of what it means to have an imago implant.
Some words aside, Martine gives us a cleverly constructed world. I can't speak for how well she has thought through the science, but it holds together well enough for the lay reader. There are echoes of all the automated dystopian world stories you've ever read but (to begin with at least) giving a clear idea of how those worlds were meant to be, before whatever went wrong did so. Beyond that her Empire owes much to the oriental traditions. Even the names have a Sino/Japanese-in-translation flavour but manipulated to give a very specific tradition to her invented race. For a glyph-based language it makes sense.
In truth the story arc is nothing new, we have an all-powerful empire, seductive and/or aggressive depending on your point of view, warlike but full of poetry. We have an ageing emperor who believes he has secured the succession, but wants to make certain – and maybe like all emperors thinks there may be a way to immortality – and definitely like all emperors has to be wary of resurrection. We have a small independent outpost likely to be next on the list for takeover and hoping to avoid it, to retain independence, but which doesn't know what its own ambassador has been promising on its behalf. Of course, that the new ambassador almost immediately finds herself the apparent target of a terrorist attack, and her cultural liaison falls prey to the City's own AI…even the certainties become blurred.
The masterstroke is to keep the main story tight: to focus on a very small number of characters, and the events of only a few days…which when you think about it, is often the way these things play out. Not only, but often…long in the gestation, but short in the action and resolution.
Part SF, part political thriller, part discourse on loyalty, the nature of friendship and the potential drift of technology not too far removed from where we are right now, if you skim the bits that might hold you up and go with the main story…you'll be rewarded.
If the political/SF mix appeals we can also recommend The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod
You can read more book reviews or buy A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine at Amazon.com.
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