Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire, Tor, 2019.
Audio book available.
To me, there are outstanding scifi novels that were published in 2019: The Outside by Ada Hoffmann, and A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. It took me some time to finally read it, but oh boy, did I enjoy it!
A space station, Lsel, neighbour to a large empire, always watchful of it and its imperialistic tendencies. An empire, a beacon of culture and militarily powerful. Mahit is freshly appointed ambassador to the Teixcalaanli Empire and she comes to investigate her predecessor sudden death. She carries inside of her a technology exclusive to her space station: an imprint of her predecessor, taken 15 years ago. But as soon as she arrives, the imprint stops working and she's almost killed in a terror attack.
What A Memory Called Empire does incredibly well is the worldbuilding. Not only the Teixcalaanli Empire is entirely believable, Martine also examines incredibly thoughtfully its cultural imperialism. It's even more striking as we see it from Mahit's point of view, who always admired the Teixcalaanli culture. This unequal relationship of the so-called barbarian with the culture she admires so much and longs to be a part of is wonderfully done.
Martine also gives wonderful depth to her world by reflecting in little touches about language and non verbal communication across cultures. The way she does it was reminiscent in how Le Guin examines it in The World for Word is Forest.
The characters are also a high point of the high novel. Mahit is an endearing character and she meets people you come to care about very quickly. The secondary characters are just as well done, from Twelve Azalea, the faithful friend, to the intriguing Imperial advisor, Nineteen Adze. I particularly enjoyed the interactions between the characters, and how Mahit navigate through this world and this people, as an outsider looking in.
The story itself could be boiled down to a political thriller, though it's enveloped with so many layers of great worldbuilding and characters dynamics, that even if you're not keen on that genre, you'll be quite simply swept along. The pace is fast and the conspiracies reveal themselves in an interesting fashion.
I devoured A Memory Called Empire which was satisfying not only as a fast paced story full of interesting characters, but also as a thoughtful take on imperialism. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the best scifi novels published last year and it shouldn't be missed.
To be noted: despite being now the first volume in a trilogy, A Memory Called Empire can be read as a stand alone novel.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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