A Memory Called Empire (2019) – Arkady Martine
I know this is a bit blasphemous in the world of books, but the cover and title of this one really stood out to me. The contents of the book did not entirely disappoint my vague expectations, but I think calling it a space opera is a bit of a stretch. It has a lot of the elements of a space opera yet lacks one of the more critical ingredients which happens to the space. From what I hear the sequel does a lot to remedy this problem. As a standalone book I think it suffers a bit from having a seemingly grand scope and scale without actually getting there. There are also themes of poetry that is brought up frequently which is implied to be a significant aspect of Teixcallan empires culture despite there being very little poetry explicitly written. This is a general problem I have throughout the book in which the characters mention a lot of places and culture without the story getting there to show you first hand. Perhaps the author thought the imagination of such things was more powerful than if it had been written directly. The places, people and culture that we do see are well described and fascinating. It is relatively easy to extrapolate from what we are shown in detail to what is briefly mentioned and imagine a more flushed out world. The book could have done this itself, but it is already quite long for how much happens.
The book starts off strong with one of our primary characters Mahit Dzmare, an ambassador from a small independent space station, arriving to her newly appointed position on Teixcalaan. Her predecessor Yskander has died and likely murdered for reasons unknown and the circumstances and politics surrounding his death are numerous as they are mysterious. Lsel station where Mahit is from has a unique and peculiar technology called an imago machine that allows the recording and implanting of memories down through the generations. Mahit with her exceptional aptitudes in language and politics awarded her the honor of receiving the imago line of her predecessor despite it being many years out of date. Unfortunately the younger memory of Yskander that Mahit carries within her witnessing the dead body of his older self causes a malfunction in her imago machine. This leaves Mahit without the knowledge of her imago line an direct predecessors knowledge to help her navigate the politics of the Teixcalaan empire.
The murder mystery of Yskander is my favorite part of the plot which is the lure that kept my reading. It’s hard to stop reading something before you learn all of the details of a mystery if it is even moderately captivating. Besides the mystery the various descriptions of technology such as the imago machines and the city run by a perfect algorithm were enjoyable concepts. The city itself being described as a single entity is particularly interesting and I appreciate how the author never uses the terminology “AI” to describe it. This plot point didn’t feel as significant as I think it could have been, but it is possible it will be more important in the sequel. Despite not being completely enamored with A Memory Called Empire I am still looking forward to the possible conclusion in the sequel A Desolation Called Peace. Especially if becomes more space and not just opera.