A Memory Called Empire


Arkady Martine


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

October 7, 2020

Memory Called Empire won the 2020 Hugo award for best novel. It was also nominated for the 2019 Nebula Award and the 2020 Locus Award for best first novel. So there is a lot of hype surrounding this book, which is why I wanted to read it.

There is a lot that I liked about A Memory Called Empire. The world building is stellar - in the distant future, humanity has built an empire that covers a quarter of the galaxy. The empire seems to be loosely based upon Mayan culture - the writing is in glyphs, the names sound Mayan (the empire is called the Teixcalaanli Empire), and there is a concept of blood sacrifice. The inhabitants of the empire all have names like Six Direction (the emperor), Eight Loop (the emperor's heir), or Three Sea Grass (a cultural liaison). The naming convention is interesting, but also confusing - Three Sea Grass is not descended from Two Sea Grass. Plus, in such a gigantic empire, shouldn't there be names like Forty-Thousand Sea Grass? Why are all the numbers so low?

Humans also populate worlds outside of the vast empire - the Lsel Station is an independent, artificial habitat of 30,000 that survives by mining nearby lifeless, metallic planets. Lsel Station receives an urgent notice that their ambassador to the empire has died, and a replacement should be quickly sent. The small station scrambles to find a suitable candidate. The new ambassador must be someone young because Lsel Station has a secret technology: they have tiny devices called imagos - these are planted in a person's brainstem to record their thoughts, ideas and personalities. If someone dies, the recovered imago can be implanted in another person, and that new host will have all of the knowledge and memories of the previous imago bearer. Only the youngsters on Lsel Station don't already have their own imago, and the new ambassador must be implanted with the imago of the previous ambassador. Unfortunately, the previous ambassador neglected to return to Lsel Station for the last 15 years, and so the knowledge contained in his last stored imago is woefully out of date. Nonetheless, out of date info is better than nothing, and that is all Lsel Station has.

Mahit Dzmare, a bright young student, is selected to be the new ambassador, the imago of Yskandr (the previous ambassador) is implanted, and before she knows it, Mahit is on her way to the capital planet of the Teixcalaanli Empire to meet Six Direction, the emperor.

Mahit Dzmare arrives during a time of high intrigue and tension. Six Direction is an old emperor, with failing health. There are factions scheming to assume power. Even worse, the previous ambassador, Yskandr, didn't just perish, but it becomes apparent he was murdered. The imago implanted in Mahit begins to malfunction almost immediately - was there sabotage? Mahit Dzmare finds herself in a high stakes situation, surrounded by assassins and schemers, and no idea who she can trust. It is a nice setup for a novel - intrigue and dangerous uncertainty.

I felt that the author didn't answer enough questions. I wasn't clear to me why Eight Antidote insisted that the Lsel Station immediately send another ambassador. I didn't understand who was trying to kill Mahit Dzmare, or what their motive was. The capital city of the Teixcalaanli Empire covers 85% of the planet, and is run by a powerful A.I. Is the A.I. compromised? Are the police (called the Sunlit) apolitical, or are they serving one of the claimants to the throne?

Several issues didn't quite ring true. Mahit Dzmare is an ambassador from a tiny, unimportant habitat. If the Teixcalaanli Empire spans a quarter of the galaxy, there must literally be millions of ambassadors to the capital city. Why would anyone even spare a glance at an ambassador from a small station that isn't even part of the empire? I wish some chapters had shown us the schemers and their plots. When the players make their move, it wasn't at all clear to me who were the "good guys".

Is there corruption on Lsel Station? The entire book is focused on Mahit Dzmare, so it is harder for the reader to see the big picture, especially since Dzmare is herself unaware of all the factions and plots that surround her. There are hints that someone on Lsel Station is working on a hidden agenda; is it Amnardbit, the councilor who selected Mahit Dzmare to be the next ambassador?

I see now that there is a sequel out, called A Desolation Called Peace. I will probably read it, hopefully it answers some of these open questions. I went to the author's website, but I don't see any mention of sequels; whether this is intended to be a trilogy or a longer series. I hope it wraps up in three books. If it stretches out longer, I will probably wander off to other books waiting on the shelf.