A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine is a debut novel for the ages: warm, brilliant, and deftly calibrated to examine difficult questions without missing out on character development or the frantic pacing of its storyline.
And it opens with a commission: Ambassador Mahit Dzmare is sent to replace the previous ambassador to the Teixcalaanli Empire. As a representative to the fiercely independent Lsel Station in the outskirts of the empire, Mahit has the double mission to keep her home a free agent and to keep their technological advances a secret. The latter turn out to be the centerpiece around which the plot is built: Mahit’s people created a technology that allows for knowledge and memory to be passed down generations, memory-selfs from the dead, neurologically integrated “Imagos.” This has been an intrinsic facet of the station’s survival, given its distance from the center of the Empire. This technology though is anathema to the people of the Empire, who seem themselves as better, superior humans who use technology but do not embrace it the same way Mahit’s people have done.
So there goes Mahit imbued with an out-of-date (by fifteen years) Imago of her predecessor, half-way through the process of integration and still experiencing divergences that ideally should have been ironed out before taking over the embassy. But she had no choice; she has been called by the Empire and answer she must. And when she gets there, she finds out her predecessor has been murdered, that other people already know the secret of their technology and that her own life is in danger – and her own Imago is malfunctioning and suddenly turns silent. But WHY is all this happening.
What happens next is a complex novel about colonization, culture, memory and murder that juxtaposes a murder mystery against the backdrop of a political conundrum of a civilization on the brink of an enormous turmoil and a dying emperor.
Mahit is our entry character of course, the eyes through which we behold the marvels and the horrors of The City. The placement is everything Mahit ever wanted: she has always loved everything about Teixcalaanli culture even as she acknowledges the hideousness of its forever advancing tentacles in annexing and engulfing other cultures. In placing Mahit at the very center of the Empire, as close as it can be to its attractive cultural zeitgeist as well as to its personable, charismatic emperor who sees himself as a peaceful savior, the novel looks head-on to both the brutality and the pull of a colonizing empire.
In the meantime, Mahit develops bonds: with her predecessor, yes but also with new friends she makes including the ever fabulous Three Seagrass, someone who is there from day one, helping Mahit navigate the dangerous waters around her and who gives me all the feelings (in fairness, Three Seagrass gives Mahit all the feels too as their beautiful F/F romance develops).
A Memory Called Empire reads great as a stand-alone but with scope for a lot more. If you liked: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, the Ancillary novels by Ann Leckie, the Interdependency novels by John Scalzi and Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, this is where you go next.
In Booksmugglerish: 8 out of 10.