Rating: 9.3 (out of 10)
Ambassador Mahit Dzmare, the protagonist of Arkady Martine’s debut space opera A Memory Called Empire, has more than one identity crisis on her hands: she has a deep affinity for the empire that wants to annex her home and she also literally has someone else’s personality nested in her brain. Dzmare’s internal conflicts correlate with the external ones that drive the novel’s plot. Living within the Teixcalaan Empire has been her heart’s desire since childhood, yet her primary aim as ambassador is to keep Teixcalaan from assuming control of her home, Lsel Station. This same conflict between personal desire and professional duty may have gotten her predecessor Yskandr Aghavn killed. It is Yskandr whose “imago” (an impression of the man built from his recorded memories) is implanted in her head. Imago technology is a Lsel state secret, yet the Teixcalaanlitzlim find it during Yskandr’s autopsy, and this discovery could embolden those who wish for Teixcalaan to consume Lsel.
To the author’s credit, her plotting is far less complicated than her world-building. Martine is a Byzantinist, and her Teixcalaan society is as relentlessly sophisticated as her discipline implies. At one point Mahit even refers to her passion for Teixcalaan ciphers as “byzantine”, and one can presume that when Teixcalaan survives but in memory and in the pages of history books will also invoke its name adjectively. The Teixcalaanlitzlim are a people in love with the idea of itself, where individual identity ties to a variety of cultural meanings and referents and even simple acts of communication come with layers of contextual baggage. The story, however, has a straightforward goal for its hero to achieve, muddied as it is by reactionary obstructions and elusive secrets. Mahit and her long-outdated, malfunctioning imago must find out how and why Yskandr was killed before forces inside and out overtake Teixcalaan and Lsel.
While the plot may be clear and linear, the novel’s architecture leaves room for more elaborate readings. Except for a few structured divergences, the tight third-person POV almost exclusively follows Mahit Dzmare from her arrival at the Teixcalaanli capital city-planet through the end. Those divergences—a prologue, epilogue, three interludes, and multiple historical excerpts and quotes heading each chapter—refer the reader to the broader political and historical circumstances at play. Together with Dzmare’s immersion in her beloved Teixcalaanli culture, Martine’s project offers a snapshot of a future history at least as rich and variegated as found in Frank Herbert’s Dune Chronicles, with almost limitless potential for return visits.
A Memory Called Empire does an exceptional job of balancing precise, consequential storytelling with layered world-building. Explicating a culture as multifaceted as Teixcalaan has the potential to overwhelm readers with exegetic digressions and overstuffed lexicons but Martine keeps the exposition plot-centered without painting her presumably copious notes and research all over the page. The novel is also rife with the kinds of amenities that inspire fannish devotion, such as the delightful (and precious) Teixcalaanli naming system. What really makes the novel work, though, are the fundamentals: Dzmare and her confidants Three Seagrass and Twelve Azealia make for excellent company, and the suspenseful, well-paced mystery plot keeps the pages turning with escalating tension and perfectly measured revelations.