A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Artwork by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com; quote from Seven Devils by Elizabeth May & Laura Lam.

 

This was a good solid reading experience. It had some great characters, an incredible world for them to play in and a political shenanigans plot that bounced along at a steady pace without ever being so indecorous as to break into an all-out run.

I should be squeee-ing all over the place.

But I’m not. And I don’t know why.

I enjoyed reading this. I was invested in the characters and events, I laughed out loud at some of the snarkier dialogue, and I had Thoughts as a result of Martine’s exploration of language, colonization and what makes a person an inviolate individual. I found it a clever and absorbing read. But I also know that I don’t plan to read it again. I feel that I have unpacked everything that I am going to find in A Memory called Empire. I don’t know whether to be disappointed in myself, or the book.

 

Let’s talk about a couple of the Thoughts first and maybe I’ll come to some understanding of what’s bothering me as we go:

 

For those who don’t already know, the story starts something like this: Mahit Dzmare of the small, independent Lsel Station, is hurriedly chosen to be the new ambassador for the Station and sent into the heart of the Teixcalaan empire. She’s young and not a little in love with Teixcalaanli culture (particularly its plentiful supply of literature and poetry). To guide her in her new role she has an imago of the previous ambassador, Yskandr Aghavn, implanted in her skull. Imago technology is unique to Lsel Station and is a way of preserving a person’s knowledge and experience. Mahit’s imago of Yskandr is not only out of date by fifteen years, but also appears to be malfunctioning, leaving her to fend for herself soon after her arrival in the City.

 

The idea of the imago technology is a great one to chew on. This little bit of kit is installed at the base of the skull and puts a whole other personality into the head of the bearer. Distinct at first, this second person lends their knowledge to their host and can even go so far as to take over their host’s body to perform necessary actions. Over time the two personalities meld into one. When you live on a space station and even the smallest mistake could mean your life, there is a very definite value to such experience and expertise being quite literally at your fingertips.

 

Mahit carries the imago of Yskandr. We only ever see the two of them distinct from one another and sharing the same body, (we never see them fully ‘blended’). There is emotional (chemical) bleed from Yskandr to Mahit sometimes, and he takes over her body on occasion.

 

Mahit’s experiences both before and after her imago malfunctions beg so many questions: is a person merely their endocrine responses? Merely the sum of their memories? If two personalities are put together into one body, do they become one person? Is that resulting person a separate identity from the two it’s a mix of? Are they more, or less, than before? Where’s the line? Is there a line at all?

 

Also, by keeping the host’s name, the suggestion is that the imago is absorbed into the primary identity. What if the imago is a stronger personality than the host? Can the imago take over?

 

Even more chewy is Mahit’s other internal struggle, between her desire to be accepted into Teixcalaan, a culture and language that she has passionately studied but which perceives her as a ‘barbarian’, and her love and pride for her home. Within Mahit’s character Martine explores how an empire uses its culture to overrun its colonies and change them into more of itself. Like a virus.

The stories we tell ourselves become our beliefs and tie us to our own people. By sharing a language of images and ideas we ensure that we are understood and that we understand. If we’re telling ourselves someone else’s stories we risk becoming alienated from our home, judging ourselves by other standards and becoming absorbed (and yet never truly accepted) by that other culture. By offering both education and entertainment based upon its own values and ideals, an empire draws other previously independent groups, peoples and planets into itself.

 

And again I found myself asking: as a product of both Lsel Station and Teixcalaan education, is Mahit one person? Are these two ways of being blended, or does one dominate? Is the resulting person (or society, or world) more, or less, than before? Where’s the line? Is there a line at all?

 

Both Lsel Station and the Teixcalaan empire are concerned with continuation, they’re just working on very different scales.

 

I’ve always loved sci-fi books that deal with language in some way, and ordinarily I’d have a lot to say about the Teixcalaanli language, but honestly, others have said it better already. The only detail I particularly liked that I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere is that in the Stationer language there is only one word for ‘bird’, because they only really need the concept, being on a space station and all. The Teixcalaanli language has words for the many varieties of bird that it has encountered, being a planet-based society for the most part. I will remain eternally fascinated by the fact that without the language to express it an idea cannot be shared.

 

And I think, that what has made me feel less than full squeee about A Memory Called Empire is that none of the Thoughts I had while reading it were my own. I didn’t have to work these things out for myself, Martine gifted them to me. I appreciate the ideas that were explored. I like that nothing was reduced down to a simple binary, and that nothing was condemned. But I feel that there’s nothing to gain from a reread of this book because it was all given to me so easily on the first read.

Hmmm. Yeah.

That feels right.

 

I’m not saying this wasn’t fun – it was a heap of fun. And I’d very happily read more set in this universe, especially anything in which Mahit and Three Seagrass reprised their roles, and maybe had something to say about aliens… (what’s that? A Desolation Called Peace is coming out next year? I’ll be there!)

What I am saying is that if this had been a library book, I’d have had no reservations about returning it when my time was up, and wouldn’t have felt the need to keep it in my work locker away the barbarian public until I had my own copy.

As it is, I’m going to donate my copy to the library when I get back to work.

 

And I already know two customers who’re going to love it.

 

16 thoughts on “A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

  1. Great review! I’ve seen a few mixed responses to this, and actually have it as an eBook to read at some point. I’ve read a few reviews that are either expressing a lot of disappointment, or ambivalence, so haven’t been in a huge rush to get to it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a fun and thought-provoking read and I feel bad for not liking it more than I did. Certainly not something to avoid, but yeah, I can see why you might not be in any kind of hurry.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! And sometimes I find myself talking round in circles before I work out what’s bothering me. Here though I think it really was just that not enough was left for me to work out for myself. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have another and perhaps unfair reason for feeling some difficulty with this quite masterful book. It’s the fascination of Mahit not just with the language and culture but the person and trappings of the emperor. That may be something we’re meant to chew over too, but why do so many books have this seduction of the central power as a motif? I said it was unfair, but we’re in a situation now where half our population is enthralled by a tyrannical figure. I just can’t handle seeing this in fiction too without a much more considered critique and soul searching in the main character. Just my two cents.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s a very good point. And not necessarily unfair I don’t think. Our reading is always informed by the time and place in which we read. And there is an increasing obsession, I feel, with powerful figures, without the necessary reflection…. if that makes sense.

      Like

  3. I enjoyed it too, but the language stuff was really superficial (see my own review for more on that) and the reason I was also lukewarm at the end is kinda simple for me: this really was generic in almost every of its aspects (again, see my review for more on that).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember your review, and have just gone back and reread it again. You’ve got it spot on.
      Am interested in getting hold of The Long Price books now – thanks for that recommendation. 😃

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A very thoughtful review: thank you so much for sharing! 🙂
    My own feelings regarding this book were similar to yours: I enjoyed it, but at the same time I remained… distant – for want of a better word – from it, as if it failed to provoke the kind of full immersion that’s required for a totally positive reading experience. Still, I would be curious to see where the continuation of the story goes, and if my feelings of detachment can be somehow banished…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. We have similar feelings about this one, I really enjoyed it but I felt like something was missing for me to completely love it and I think it has something to do with how easy and layed out everything is. As you mentioned, as the reader, we don’t have a lot of work to do to understand everything about the world and the various commentaries made by Martine. It might be because it’s her first book but everything worked a bit too well.
    Nonetheless, I’m still super excited for the sequel and I hope Martine will expand on her world! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed, her second book sounds exciting and I’m looking forward to it.
      As you say, the slight reservations I (we) have could well be due to this being Martine’s first novel. Which promises good things for anything to follow, I feel. 😃

      Liked by 1 person

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