Book Review: “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine

“A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine, last year’s Hugo winner, is well worth its regard. It is the first book of the Teixcalalaan series, a cyberpunk and space opera universe inspired by many cultures, including the Byzantines, the Romans and the Aztecs. The second book comes out in a few months. The book follows the appointment of a new Ambassador from Lsel Station, Mahit Dzmare, to the Teixcalaanli Empire. She carries an imago-machine in her head, a technology that enables Stationers like Mahit to store the memories and consciousness of others in their brains. They don’t exactly become two people, but rather they are their own person, with another’s skills and memories enhancing their own. This kind of biohacking is considered immoral by the Teixcalaani Empire, but it is used to preserve institutional memory on Lsel from one generation to the next with the likes of pilots and miners. 

Mahit arrives in a particularly dangerous political situation in Teixcalaanli, when the emperor faces a succession crisis. Her predecessor, Yskander, was murdered, but he is hiding political secrets of his own. It is his imago-machine that Mahit has in her head, but it is 15 years out of date, and she suspects it is sabotaged. 

This book was an enjoyable, fast-paced ride dense with political intrigue, reminiscent of The Expanse. I was expecting more of a murder mystery but it soon became apparent that Mahit was less of an active protagonist investigating a murder and more reacting to events that unfolded. For example, when she investigates the body of her predecessor, she does not do an autopsy or look for a cause of death, but rather, her assistant asks her questions about the imago-machine. I saw it as more of a political thriller and an examination of the complicated darkness of colonialism. I seem to be reading a lot of books lately with the word “empire” in the title – colonialism is a trendy theme of 2019-2020 it seems. 

I found the political games in the story refreshing; it all fit neatly together like a puzzle based on scraps of verse and coded messages. But political machinations usually lose me if the characters are not strong enough, and I immediately fell in love with the characters in this book, Mahit and her assistant Three Seagrass in particular. Their sexual tension throughout the book and romantic subplot was intoxicating. I was immediately drawn to Mahit, with her naive nerd-like devotion to Teixcalaani culture, a society built on poetry, literature and the arts; but even she soon succumbs to bitterness, the brutal reality of empire-building settling on her shoulders, as both the Teixcalaani Empire and Lsel Station face an even greater alien threat than the wars that humans fight among themselves. 

I also saw the city on Teixcalaan as a character in itself. This worldbuilding was stunning, and welcome to dive into another popular book not inspired by white Western Europe. The city itself was run by an algorithm, and an intriguing exploration of future sustainable city design. The first book only touched the surface of the implications of the city’s omniscient AI. 

This is speculative fiction at its finest. A fun experience, great characters, and an elaborate world with interesting politics. Recommend strongly. 

This review also on my Goodreads page. I’m looking for more friends and followers on Goodreads, by the way.

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