Book Review: A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan #1)
by Arkady Martine
Science Fiction
Published in 2019

Mahit Dzmare is a young ambassador fulfilling a lifelong ambition: to travel from her home on the independent Lsel Station to the vast Teixcalaan Empire, whose culture she has long been obsessed with. Complex, cosmopolitan, and endlessly self-referential, Teixcalaan expands in two ways: through military conquest and through its overwhelming culture, which fascinates young people from other worlds and makes them want to be Texicalaanli, too, even as imperial citizens view anyone outside their borders as barbarians. But Mahit speaks their language, has memorized their poetry, followed their serialized dramas, and so believes that she can blend into the culture as well as any citizen. And she’ll have to, for Mahit’s mission is to prevent the Teixcalaan Empire from absorbing Lsel Station under its banner, and she’s heading into a tempestuous political situation without the knowledge she should have, for her predecessor died under mysterious circumstances, and the information he should have left to Mahit has been lost. Bereft of resources and surrounded by political agents she cannot trust, Mahit must find out who killed the last ambassador before she, too, is killed and her home is taken over by the beautiful but deadly Teixcalaan Empire.

A Memory Called Empire premiered to almost instant acclaim in 2019, going on to be nominated for the Nebula Award, the Locus Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award and winning the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Not bad for a debut novel. The accolades were well-deserved. In A Memory Called Empire, Martine builds an interplanetary empire with a history that feels as real and as complex as any historical empire, complete with linguistic oddities that meld ‘city’, ‘world’, and ’empire’ into a single concept, separate but distinct from each other, as well as including complex poetical forms the Teixcallanlitzlim use to describe everything from historical battles to epic romances to routine city maintenance. It’s enough to make the reader want to obsess over the culture of Teixcalaan as much as Mahit does.

There is, however, a limit to how much an outsider can integrate into Teixcalaanli society, as Mahit discovers at a grand dinner where the empire’s best poets compete for imperial honors. As the competition progresses, Mahit realizes that, even though she’s studied their poetry for years, she will never be able to compose it as elegantly as even the mediocre poets she hears, for they grew up with the history and language. No matter how much Mahit tries to blend in, she will always be a barbarian to them, with strange habits and rituals that seem outlandish and repulsive. Their politicians will always see her as a pawn to be played, and even the Emperor sees her as someone he can use to get what he wants.

That’s not to say that no one in A Memory Called Empire is trustworthy. Mahit’s diplomatic aide, Three Seagrass is a constant delight and serves as a cultural interpreter for both Mahit and the reader, explaining bits of cultural detritus that help to add the layers of complexity that make the world within the pages feel real and vital.

A Memory Called Empire is nothing short of a literary tour de force, with Arkady Martine displaying subtlety, as well as confidence in character development, worldbuilding, plotting, and pacing that some authors with five times her experience lack. Teixcalaan is an empire that demands the reader’s attention and makes them fall in love with it, even as it thrums with intrigue and danger. And if we– and Mahit– learn nothing else about the empire, it’s perhaps this: to thine own self be true.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: A Memory Called Empire

  1. Glad to see you really enjoyed this one. I’ve been curious about it since it came out but haven’t gotten to it yet. I am moving it up the list just a bit, though. 🙂 I love these sorts of stories that immerse you in something new and different, that are so rich you really feel as if you’re there. How was the ending (not wanting you to give anything away) considering it’s the first in a series. Is there any kind of closure? A cliffhanger?

  2. I loved it! It’s super immersive and the worldbuilding is so complex. You really have to pay attention, because Martine doesn’t spend a bunch of time explaining things to you. She expects you to pick things up because she assumes you’re clever enough to keep up. And I appreciate that.

    There’s closure at the end, so you can read it as a standalone, or if you love the world you can go on to the second one. I’m definitely going on to the second one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s