Review: A Memory Called Empire – A Brilliantly Ambitious Space Opera

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Title: A Memory Called Empire (Texicalaan 1)
Author: Arkady Martine
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: March 26th, 2019
Genre(s): Science Fiction Space Opera
Subjects and Themes: Political Intrigue, Culture, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

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Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident―or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion―all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret―one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life―or rescue it from annihilation.

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A Memory Called Empire was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, and while I do have a few niggling issues with it, if you like your space operas drenched to the neck in mystery, intrigue, philosophy, and intricate worldbuilding, then I can tell you that this might be the book of the year for you.

Martine has created a fascinating, incredibly layered world with Texicalaan–a multiplanetary empire whose culture is steeped in language and poetry. To which I’d normally say, “Hell yes. How do I apply for citizenship?” Except I probably wouldn’t last a week without decking someone and starting an intergalactic incident.

Because Texicalaan is, in many ways, stifling in its grandiosity. It’s an empire so wrapped up in its own depth, turning their nose up at outsiders (“barbarians”) and prone to waxing poetic about anything and everything. But, then again, it is an empire. And empires don’t get to be where they are on a bedrock of humility and blushy feet-shuffling coyness. And it would be hard for any society to abstain from arrogance when every aspect of their culture–from language and history to technology–is as spanning and rich as this. Martine does such an incredible job breathing life into this world that I couldn’t help but think of it as real and mull on it with equal parts exasperation and fondness. (And I would seriously love to read a collection of short stories set in the  empire)

So it’s no wonder that Mahit, our newly-appointed ambassador from Lsel, has been utterly in love with it for the entirety of her life.

I’d call this the space opera version of “plain outsider gets inducted into elite private academy.” There are traditions to uphold. Passive-aggressive remarks to smile and nod at. Hoops to jump through. And a not-so-faint whiff of superiority trailing you as you try to navigate this new territory without drowning. Except our MC here also has a murder to solve and a brewing political plot to contend with, and a wrong step can lead to her death. There’s a bit of action. A whole lot of intrigue. And for a story that’s so politically-focused, I found the pacing to be pleasantly fast, at least for the first half; it did kind of let up in the second half and my attention ended up wandering from place to place.

Besides the technical aspects of story, Martine captures the emotional side of it wonderfully. Mahit’s loneliness of being a foreigner set adrift in a new land is palpable, as is her conflict of loving a nation for all its cultural nuances while also being painfully aware of its faults and danger. And the side characters are all interesting and well-realized–one Three Seagrass in particular, whose interactions with Mahit made me smile.

I guess my biggest gripe is with the prose. This is probably just a matter of personal taste, and I don’t really know how to explain it, but there was something about it that my brain could never latch onto. The way it didn’t quite fit with the story it was telling. And reading through it was sometimes like trying to gather water using a sieve. Which was frustrating because this is the kind of story that I want to gather up in a large bowl and look at it for days and days on end. But the book said, “Nope. No bowl-gazing for you today.” So that was that.

At the end of the day, I think this is more a book that I really appreciate and am somewhat in awe of, in terms of its scope and depth, than a book that I’m headlong in love with. And I’m perfectly okay with that! Not every book I read needs to induce first-kiss-clothes-ripping-off passion. But “appreciate” doesn’t mean “dislike” (not by far), and make no mistake, this is a fantastic debut and start of a series that will undoubtedly leave a lasting mark in the subgenre. And I cannot wait to see what more Martine has in store.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

8 thoughts on “Review: A Memory Called Empire – A Brilliantly Ambitious Space Opera

  1. maddalena@spaceandsorcery says:

    I started this a few days ago and while I’m very intrigued by the world-building and the characters, the narrative style sometimes makes me feel as if I’m wading through water against the current, if that description makes any sense. This has forced me, unlike my usual habits, to alternate with reading another book to… get a breath of fresher air, so to speak. Still, it’s an engrossing story and I believe I will like it in the end.
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels that way about the writing style. It definitely feels like trying to swim against the current, which is weird because the dialogue flows pretty well. The story does end on a strong note, so I think it’s very probable that you’ll love it in the end. 🙂

      Like

  2. waytoofantasy says:

    Fantastic review. I’m really glad to see your thoughts on this one. I’ve been interested in this book for a while but haven’t picked up a copy yet, but I think I’m going to officially get it in my TBR pile now. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. @lynnsbooks says:

    Love your review – and you’re right of course, you don’t have to love every book you read with a passion, some books are impressive, some just beautifully written and some very thought provoking, they don’t have to be everything to everyone.
    I’ll definitely keep this one in mind.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. bookbeachbunny says:

    I read an excerpt of this and thought it was really intriguing but something about the writing I just couldn’t really get into it. Good to know you liked it though! Maybe it’s something for when my mind is less cluttered 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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