Arkady Martine dazzles in her debut novel, A Memory Called Empire. This is space opera the way it’s meant to be done - and that is really saying something for me. I tend to love space opera with starships and battles and tactical plans. None of that exists in A Memory Called Empire. Or, perhaps it would be better to say that such exists, but the viewpoint we’re given is quite different. If you love your sci-fi thoughtful, cerebral, but fun and with an engaging and excellent main character, this is the sci-fi novel for you.
One of the things I really loved about A Memory Called Empire is the way it deals with culture and identity. As you might expect for a novel with this sort of title, our main character, Mahit, finds herself an ambassador from a small space station to the great Teixcalaan Empire. What’s truly fascinating about this is we get to see Mahit’s perspective as she arrives at the imperial capital and begins her work as an ambassador. But she’s arriving here as someone who loves the culture of the empire and much of what it represents, while at the same time hating the potential that this empire has to gobble up her own home station and all the culture that it represents. This ebb and flow, push and pull between Mahit’s love for both her homeland and the Teixcalaanli is part of what makes this novel shine. But this clash of cultures isn’t the only aspect of the novel that Martine hits out of the park. One of the unique things about Mahit’s culture is their use of a secret technology known as imago-machines. These small machines, embedded in the nervous system, record memories and endocrine responses and then pass these on to the next person in the imago line. The person who receives this imago is combined with it, forming a sort of hybrid personality. It’s not dissimilar to the dax symbiote from Deep Space Nine, but non-organic. However, this allows Martine not only to show us the external push and pull of cultures on Mahit, but also the internal push and pull as she struggles with finding herself and her identity as the inheritor of an imago line. The internal and external factors here create wonderful foils for one another.
I’ve said all of this and haven’t even touched on the world building, which is fantastic. Martine gives us a fascinating culture in the Teixcalaan Empire. From the use of numbers and nouns in names (Nineteen Adze, Six Direction) to the importance of poetry in the world, this feels like a refreshingly unique sci-fi world. There is a beauty to the world building, yet a certain brutality lurks just behind the curtain, never far from the conscious thought of both the characters and the reader. Not only is the world building exceptional, but Martine gives us a fully realized main character that genuinely grows throughout the novel. It wouldn’t be wrong to call this character-driven sci-fi.
If there is anything that didn’t connect with me in this novel, I’d say it’s some of the side characters. While some were interesting and provided certain enigmas, I felt like we only rarely received glimpses into their motivations. Not only did this leave me guessing at certain points about what their motivations were - in a way that took me out of the story - it also made it feel as if a few of the side characters were simply walking through actions in service to the narrative. This is largely made up for on the strengths of the characterization of Mahit and in the end did not significantly impact my enjoyment of the novel.
A Memory Called Empire is sure to become a sci-fi masterpiece that stands alongside Asimov, Herbert, Simmons, and other greats of the genre. This is one you absolutely do not want to miss.
Review by Calvin Park
9/10 from 1 reviews
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