“In the soft hands of a child
Even a map of the stars can withstand,
Forces that pull and crack. Gravity persists.
Continuity persists: uncalloused fingers
Walk orbital paths, but I am drowning
In a sea of flowers; in violet foam, in the fog
“A Memory called Empire” by Arkady Martine is a politically intriguing interstellar science fiction novel full of published in 2017 and the first out of two books. As the book is “dedicated to anyone who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring their own”, it deals with imperialism and brilliantly handles the devastation and the allure of an empire.
The main character, Mahit Dzmare, is from the Lsel Station and is sent to be the next ambassador to the Teixcalaanli Empire after her predecessor dies. She carries a copy of the mind of Yskandr Aghavn, the previous Ambassador, implanted in her skull based on a secret Lsel technology. However, the memories are fifteen years out of date. Once in Teixcalaan, she must figure out what happened to Yskandr while saving herself from assassination attempts and her station from being colonised. Although Mahit should see the Empire as her enemy and is seen by the people as a “barbarian” and “alien” there, she can’t help but be fascinated by their culture and their use of language. She has devoted her life to understanding the complex imperial poetry that served as a means of communication and propaganda in the Empire. With this, the book explores the intersection of politics, culture, and the impact of language. Yet,the core theme that weaves throughout the book is Mahit’s struggle with identity. She is an ambassador to an empire that she has fallen in love with, although it is plotting to consume her home station. The book offers a unique perspective on how colonialism impacts the colonized and how complex that relationship can be. At the same time, it discusses the concept of memory and self as Mahit has to share her consciousness with Yskandr and is supposed to fuse their identities. She reflects on the following: How do you remain yourself when you inherit someone else’s memories? How much power over yourself do you have? Even her friend Three Seagrass asks her: “Are you Yskandr, or are you Mahit?” a question Mahit cannot answer straight away.
Throughout the book, Mahit develops relationships with a lot of interesting personalities: there’s the Emperor’s advisor, Nineteen Adze, who is charming and cunning; the cultural liaison, Three Seagrass, whom Mahit is captivated by; and her close friend Twelve Azalea, who brings humour and adventure to the trio. At the same time, inside Mahit’s mind, Yskandr remembers his own relationships, which are described with an immense tenderness and longing – you experience the feeling of being deeply in love with the wrong person and the grief of having lost a friend. All relationships and their progression enrich the already brilliant story.
Arkady Martine was inspired by the Byzantine and Aztec Empires, as well as American imperialism and crafted a world with an impressive depth to its world. Arkady Martine commented that as a Byzantine historian, she was inspired by cultures that were “conquest-oriented, [and] were war-and-sacrifice oriented” and that the number-noun naming system references the practices of the Mixtec people of Oaxaca. Additionally, the political poetry contests can also be found in the Byzantine Empire and the blood sacrifices were naturally influenced by Aztec rituals. The reference to American imperialism is visible as Teixcalaan isn’t just a “military power, [but] a pervasive cultural one”.
Martine’s ability to create an atmosphere is astounding: while reading the book, you can’t stop dreaming about the glittering golden city, constellations of planets, encrypted poetry, teardrop chandeliers, and black marble. With her descriptions, she manages to immerse you in her dream world. The readers are enchanted exactly as Mahit is when she calls it the “centre of the world”, yet beneath the surface of this captivating illusion lies the truth of the Empire. Too late, she (and the readers) will remember that this world is more dangerous than it looks and that her home station is in danger.
It is truly a book to be recommended to any science fiction or fantasy reader, but even if this isn’t your preferred genre, I hope you give it a chance!