Book review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

(cover image courtesy Pam Macmillan Australia)

You have to hand it to humanity – no matter where we go, or what we accomplish or how grand and impressively expansive we become, we never really relinquish the inherent things that make us human, good and bad.

Just how stubbornly we cling to the building blocks of our flawed humanity through time and literal space becomes abundantly clear in Arkady Martine’s monumentally brilliant debut novel A Memory of Empire which explores, in gloriously powerful, quietly-evocative language, the intricacies of connection, negotiation, love and independence against the backdrop of sprawling, all-pervasive empire.

In humanity’s latest 2000-year-old iteration, we have left the gravity well of Earth and surged across into a galaxy in which we have built an empire known as Teixcalaan, which brings together elements of Byzantine and Aztec civilisation, drawing on the author’s background as an historian.

The resulting culture she summons from a range of different influences, including American cultural imperialism, is a dazzlingly impressive one where conquest of neighbouring systems is as natural as breathing, a seeming force of nature so rapacious that the sole task of the new Lsel ambassador, Mahit Dzmare to the “Jewel of the World”, the capital city of the empire, is to ensure that the string of independent mining stations she calls home remain free of imperial control.

It is no easy task as you might imagine, one complicated still further by the fact that her predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn, who became besotted and enthralled by Teixcalaanli culture and power to such an extent that he almost never returned home, has died in mysterious circumstances, the exact nature of his untimely end a subject of much evasion by almost everyone Mahit encounters.

“There would be a certain satisfying circularity to the Science Ministry trying to kill every Lsel ambassador. Mahit didn’t trust it—it was like a ring composition in an oration, the same theme coming around again at the end of the stanza. It was too Teixcalaanli, and even if Nineteen Adze hadn’t meant her to think of it, she could guess that she had come up with it because of exactly that kind of overdetermined thinking. Echoes and repetition. Everything meaning something else.” (P. 215)

If all that wasn’t enough, Mahit is drawing from an Imago-machine replication of Yskandr’s memories and essence that is 15 years old, meaning that while he can school her in correct protocol and etiquette, he is unable to bring her up to speed on what caused someone to kill him in a less than diplomatic manner.

This is a problem because everyone seems to want to kill Mahit, by explosive, poisonous and other means, her only allies her Teixcalaanli cultural liaison Three Seagrass – everyone is named after a number and either a natural phenomena (mostly women) or mechanical item (mostly men), with lower numbers the most prestigious and meaningful – and her friend Twelve Azalea who are in many ways not typically representative of the empire they have sworn to serve.

They are invaluable to Mahit who, without the full range of Yskandr’s wealth of imperial knowledge, could all too easily fall prey to the constantly-evolving twists-and-turns of Teixcalaanli’s labyrinthine realpolitik machinations.

The brilliance of A Memory Called Empire, quite apart from its engrossing narrative and evocatively-realised characters, is the way in which it brings in so much history and knowledge of humanity’s capacity for duplicity and endless power-hungry avarice on an vastly imperial scale without once overwhelming the story.

In fact, so expertly does Martine weave in the vast reserves of scholarly knowledge she has on the subject that the novel is a richly-rewarding treat for anyone with an interest in history, culture and power.

Arkady Martine (image courtesy official Arkady Martine Twitter account)

One of the central ideas explored is how you can simultaneously seduced and yet repelled by a culture which is threatening to devour your own with a completeness and a brutality that will leave little trace of what was once so precious and distinctive.

Mahit has been trained in Teixcalaan culture since she was a little girl, a “barbarian” who is able to move in the circles of empire far more easily that many who sit beyond, for the time being at least, of imperial reach.

And yet for all her love and appreciation of a culture as apt to recite poetry as practice brutally bloody, sun-worshipping intrigue – for a technologically advance entity, the entity retains a great many primitively pagan elements – she is all too aware that Teixcalaan is ferociously avaricious and could take away her home as knows it without breaking a sweat.

Perilously positioned in the empire and yet quite clearly not a part of it, something that everyone, even Three Seagrass with whom she forms an unexpectedly close bond, reminds her of every moment in ways direct and obscure, Mahit is plunged in the deep end from the very beginning, forcing the accomplished young woman to swim, and swim consummately well, lest she and her mining station be swallowed up for all eternity (or as long as the empire endures; if you are a student of history, you know that every empire, no matter how powerful, has an expiry date.)

Mahit’s story is the same as many people from cultures unceremoniously subsumed into empire, repelled and beguiled all at once, and with the devil’s own task on their hands to retain some scrap of independence in a power-hungry entity for whom the idea of separateness and self-determination are almost alien concepts.

“Mahit went, drawn forward by invisible strings: desire, hers and not-hers. Obedience to imperial authority. All the effort and sacrifice she had put into making this meeting possible. She sat, becoming part of the fortification-aura of information. Just one more piece of data surrounding Six Direction. There were visible bruises, this close up, on the Emperor’s wrists, over the veins; inelastic skin and thin-walled vasculature insulted by what must have been countless injections. She wondered what was keeping him alive.” (P. 418)

Speaking of aliens, they are there in some form, and one race poses a very real threat to humanity’s seemingly endless march across the stars, but A Memory Called Empire is essentially a very human story.

It cleverly delves into humanity’s innate ability to dress itself up in technology, cultural advancement, knowledge and understanding while still remaining very much an instinct-driven species who fall back to evolutionary imperatives at the drop of a galactic hat.

This propensity to be both highly-evolved and very much not comes to the fore in several critical parts of the narrative, a dynamic which illustrates again how grand and debased we can be in almost the same breath.

A Memory Called Empire is thrillingly clever novel which mixes together power, passion, intrigue, high culture and low desire into a heady mix that makes for highly-addictive, brilliantly-enticing reading.

The novel is at once the very best and the very worst of us, set against a backdrop of machinations so big and yet so intimate that retaining who you are and what you want is a challenge for our protagonist but a sensationally enthralling, captivating, invigorating for those of us fortunate enough to be on the outside looking in.

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