ARC provided by the publisher—Tor Books—in exchange for an honest review.
Easily one of the cleverest sci-fi debuts I’ve read so far.
A Memory Called Empire is Arkady Martine’s debut novel and the first instalment in the Teixcalaan series. Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in Teixcalaan only to find out that the previous ambassador from the same mining station as hers has died. Contrary to her belief, nobody wants to admit that his death wasn’t an accident, and now it’s up to Mahit to uncover who’s behind the murder. At the same time, she also has to save the place where she came from—Lsel—from the Teixcalaan expansion. A Memory Called Empire at its core is a murder mystery story. If you start this book expecting tons of action, there’s a chance that you’ll be sorely disappointed. The main charm of the book lies in Mahit’s challenges in navigating the unfamiliar culture of Teixcalaan; it’s a book heavily centered on politics. In my opinion, this novel was a bit reminiscent of The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. The main difference between the two is that while I disliked The Traitor Baru Cormorant, I highly enjoyed reading this one due to a superb prose that clicked with me.
“The problem with sending messages was that people responded to them, which meant one had to write more messages in reply.”
It did, however, take me a long time to be wholly invested in the main character; almost 50% into the book truthfully speaking. I wasn’t really impressed by Mahit’s character at first, and the fact that the story was almost entirely told through her perspective actually made me think that the book wasn’t working for me. However, I was gladly proven wrong. The second half of the book did more than redeem what I initially thought was lacking in the book—fascinating characters. By then, I’ve come to realize that the reason I had some issues with Mahit in the earlier half of the book wasn’t that she was poorly written, but it was because she needed some time for her personality to shine and she hasn’t really interacted much with the main side characters; Three Seagrass and Twelve Azalea. These two characters truly made Mahit’s personality bloom. The unlikely relationships that Mahit formed with these two characters were utterly delightful to read and I loved reading every moment of it. Eventually, the novel ended up becoming an exhilarating ride due to the gradual increase in tension and most of all, my growing investment in the characters and their fates. Plus, Martine was brilliantly able to make weird character names work. I’m not kidding, I’ve read a lot of books and this was literally the first time I’ve read characters’ names as original as those in A Memory Called Empire. Here’s an example:
“‘I am Six Helicopter,’ said the man—Mahit stared at him, and wondered when he’d learned to say his name with not only a straight face but with that degree of smugness”
Once you’ve started reading this novel, I think you will easily agree with me that Arkady Martine is a very intellectual author. The reason why I say this is mainly because of the incredibly intricate world-building, and Martine’s implementation of it into the storyline. I won’t lie, I haven’t read sci-fi/space opera as much as I’ve read epic fantasy. However, from my experience so far, the world-building in sci-fi/space opera rarely reach the intricacy that can easily be found in epic fantasy. However, A Memory Called Empire amazed my vision and imagination with its super detailed world-building, and its seamless integration into every aspect of the book. Technology, culture, memory, legacy, language, citizen’s behavior, identity crisis, and history, they were all written impeccably. Most of the novel was told in the past tense, but there were a few times where the narrative shifts to present tense and Martine nailed this transition wonderfully. Not only did the changes in tenses feel natural, it was also necessary to enhance the frantic scenes portrayed. I’d like to also add it’s better to take your time reading this book. Digest each word slowly, because there are a lot of nuances to appreciate in the multi-layered world-building. Plus, Martine didn’t spend a lot of time explaining the terminology; it’s up to the reader to define what the terms mean through the context of the story and narrative. Luckily, there’s a glossary near the end of the book that will help readers a lot in understanding what each in-world term means, or who the characters are.
“Histories are always worse by the time they get written down.”
Written with finesse, A Memory Called Empire didn’t feel like a debut effort at all. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have guessed this is a debut if no one has told me about it. The prose was so vivid, engaging, and easy to follow despite a myriad of terminologies and unique names to remember. The intro of my review said crystal clear – it’s very easy for me to claim that A Memory Called Empire is one of the cleverest sci-fi debuts I’ve ever read. There are a lot of promising books being published in 2019, and I’m pretty damn sure that Arkady Martine’s skillfully crafted debut will be one of the books that many readers rave about in the future.
“Better to take action than to be paralyzed by the thousands of shifting possibilities.”
Official release date: March 26th, 2019
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The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.