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.

Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers 3) – A Cozy Space Soap Opera

Record of a Spaceborn Few

Title: Record of a Spaceborn Few
Author: Becky Chambers
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: July 24th, 2018
Genre(s) and Subject(s): Space Opera, Aliens, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 368 (paperback)
Goodreads

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

 

 

Becky Chambers’ third entry in her highly-acclaimed Wayfarers series opens with a catastrophic accident and a mass funeral. Thousands of people, including our main characters, come together in the wake of this tragedy to weep for those they’ve never even met. And this prologue really kind of sets the tone for the rest of the story. Celebration of life in the midst of death. A community coming together for support and healing.

I’ve seen the Wayfarers books compared with Mass Effect and Firefly, two very popular space opera franchises. And while I can see a few similarities in this book–humans tentatively coexisting with aliens, spaceships serving as homes–Spaceborn Few doesn’t have the sprawling, galactic feel of Mass Effect or Firefly. What it does excel at is homing in on all the minutiae of a person’s everyday life and blowing them up to dramatic proportions. In that respect, it reminded a lot of NBC’s drama series This is Us, complete with all the warm and fuzzy family dramas. These aren’t galaxy-spanning conflicts but microconflicts that don’t extend beyond one person, one family, but are just as meaningful, if not more.

We follow the lives of five characters who reside in the Exodus Fleet (either temporarily or permanently), which is a series of ships that set out from Earth generations ago in an attempt to carve out a new, better chapter for humanity.

Tessa is a mother of two and works at the cargo bay where she keeps track of the goods coming in and out of the Fleet. Her perspective was my favourite, as her interactions with her children, Aya and Ky, are so endearing and nauseating sweet (in a good way). 

Isabel is the oldest character of the group (she has grandchildren!). She’s an archivist who’s playing guide to an alien researcher who has come to visit the Fleet for the first time. I loved their little debates on the differences between human social nuances and alien ones. They serve as a celebration of the best of human culture but also an embracing of the “other.”

Sawyer is in his early twenties and unlike the other characters, he’s a newcomer to the Fleet. He’s come here to trace his family’s roots back to the place where it all really began (post-Earth) and to experience all that the Exodan culture has to offer. And boy, is he ever excited.

Eyas is a caretaker, and her job is to prepare dead bodies and bury them as fertilizer throughout the Fleet’s gardens. It’s a job that she loves but it does make for a lonely life, as many people are confused and repulsed by the idea of being intimate with someone who literally handles death on a daily basis. With Eyas’ POV we also get positive explorations of sex work, which I wholly loved and appreciated.

Kip is a teenage boy and the youngest of the cast. At sixteen he’s already tired of life on the Fleet and wants out badly (cue the Beauty and the Beast lyrics: “I want so much more than they’ve got planned”). Trouble is, he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life once he graduates.

There isn’t much of a plot. And I know some people will physically recoil at the very idea, but let me tell you, I’ve never been more entertained by a story with such a heavy focus on gardening, cooking, corpse-preparing, long distance phone-calling, and other such mundane activities. It’s as domestic as it gets and there’s comfort to be found in that.

Most of all, though, the story made me feel good. About humans. About being a human. About sexuality, relationships, and all the uncertainties that life likes to throw at our feet. Record of a Spaceborn Few is my first glimpse into Becky Chambers’ writing and it sure won’t be the last.

 

Copy provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review

Review: A Big Ship At the Edge of the Universe – An Exciting Intragalactic Adventure

A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe

Title: A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe
Author: Alex White
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: June 26th, 2018
Genre(s): Sci-Fi, Fantasy
Page Count: 480 (paperback)
Goodreads

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

“You’re going to get killed.”
She looked across at him, stars in her eyes. “But what a grand way to die.”

A Big Ship At the Edge of the Universe had first caught my eye with its fantastic premise–a space opera featuring a treasure hunt, two women on the run, and a F/F romance. What’s not to like? And I’m pleased to say that the story lives up to my expectations. It combines high-octane action and charming characters to create a summer scifi that’s perfect for fans of Firefly and the Borderlands games.

Here’s the quick rundown: a cocky young woman crosses paths with a mouthy veteran. Both get kidnapped by the veteran’s former captain and are thrust into a hunt for a legendary ghost ship. Space battles ensue. Romances are had. Hand-to-hand combat is considered foreplay. And things get very, very dangerous.

Nilah is as privileged as they get. A bigshot racer with a rich father and utterly naive when it comes to the wider universe. Then, during one race, she bears witness to the murder of a fellow racer and she soon finds herself on the run with a hefty bounty on her head. Her life thus far has revolved solely around driving and trying to get her name inscribed in the racing history books. So this whole murdering and ship hunting business? Not a fan. At all.

In enters Elizabeth “Boots” Elsworth. An older veteran woman who now makes her paltry living as a treasure map maker and seller. Most of her maps are conjectures (i.e. junk), but every so often she happens on the real deal, which, unfortunately, turns out to be the case here.

Boots and Nilah are fantastic together. Nilah reminds me of a bratty princess (who can also throw a hell of a right hook), and Boots a world-weary gunslinger with a penchant for sass and sarcasm. We’ve seen this dynamic plenty of times with male characters in every genre of fiction, so it’s exciting to see it played out between two women. Boot’s sarcastic quips never failed to make me smile and Nilah’s reckless, daredevil spirit is nothing less than infectious. They’re both characters you can’t help but want to be best friends with.

The side characters are also varied and interesting–especially Orna, the hot-tempered quartermaster and Nilah’s love interest. Their romance will appeal to fans of the enemies-to-lovers trope; there’s enough friction between them to light up an entire city and I loved every bit of it.

What’s also impressive is the magic system. Yes, there’s magic in this story, and though it’s strange saying this about a space opera, it’s very cool. When most scifi stories try to incorporate magic into their world, they don’t call it “magic”, they give it scientific-sounding names, a la “Biotics” from Mass Effect. But we all know they’re just wizards in space. Here? No such coy winking. Alex White blatantly calls them “wizards” and “mages” and their abilities are literally just spellcasting. I love that. Magic and future tech seamlessly interact in ways that are inventive yet highly plausible, which, for fantasy and scifi lovers, is truly the best of both worlds.

What’s even more fascinating is that this is a world in which magic is the norm. The majority of people are all born with the ability, and being a non-caster is considered an incredibly rare defect. Thus “non-casters” are often treated with pity and distaste. It’s an interesting societal characteristic that I would love to see explored deeper in the sequels.

The story isn’t without a few problems. I couldn’t get a good sense of what some of these planets looked like beyond the basics, which was a little frustrating. And throughout the second half, I found myself craving a bit less action and a bit more character interaction. Nilah and Boots’ burgeoning friendship is put on hold in favour of moving the plot forward and we get less scenes of them together. Nilah and Orna’s relationship also seems to skip several steps in the middle–moving from “I’m going to bash your head in” to “I love you” a little too quickly for my liking.

All in all, though, A Big Ship is a lovable story–full of crazy action scenes, an eclectic cast of characters, and a myth to chase–and I had a ton of fun with it. Book two will be dropping later this year and I very much look forward to seeing what adventures these characters will face next.

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ARC provided by Orbit in exchange for an honest review