Book Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

a memory called empireA Memory Called Empire
Arkady Martine

Tor, 2019

It’s taken me some time to craft a review for this book because I’m not entirely sure how to review it; do I write something purely based on the book’s merit or do I write something based on my own experience of the book? The eternal question. The thing is, I’m not really into sci-fi/space opera. I don’t know what it is. Something about the worldbuilding and aesthetics of space opera just doesn’t really click with me, so that’s already a hurdle to overcome when picking up a space opera novel.

That definitely colored my experience with A Memory Called Empire, but looking at it objectively, it’s a rather superb novel. I can completely understand why it’s been nominated for a Hugo, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins, frankly. It’s really a superb accomplishment on so many level.

The worldbuilding is astonishingly good, particularly the attention paid to subtle linguistic connotations in language. There’s also a running commentary about the power of empire; the main character, Mahit, embodies this conundrum in how much she despises the empire’s reach and yet loves the empire and wishes to be a part of it. She has so much longing about wanting to belong, to be a true citizen of the empire, and yet she recognizes that she should not have this desire. And boy, as a third-culture kid whose parents are from a country with a legacy of British colonialism? I felt that.

I was most impressed by the plot. This is some of the most complex and fascinating political intrigue I’ve ever seen. I can’t tell you how much brainpower I had to expend just to keep up with all the moving parts; who is loyal to who, who wants what, who’s working with who. It’s made even more complicated becausae none of these characters are one-note caricatures or archetypes; they’re all complex human beings with varying levels of loyalty to their empire, so it’s not always simple to put them in neat columns. There’s so many shades of gray here.

Thematically, the novel explores many ideas. There is the ubiquity of empire, of course, made clear by the book’s dedication. But there are also themes of memory and identity, having to do with a particular kind of technology utilized by Mahit’s people; these discussions bordered on the metaphysical. There’s also a running commentary on AIs carrying the biases of their creators.

The characters are wonderful. Mahit is so smart and but also so very flawed and so very human. There were times when I was so frustrated with her hasty decisions to trust those around her, but I also understood her motivations, her desire not to feel so desperately, achingly alone on an unfamiliar planet. Three Seagrass and Twelve Azalea were spectacular, so vibrant and funny, with an intriguing relationship. Nineteen Adze was, well, frustratingly enigmatic but also just really, really cool. And Yskandr, who sadly is only present for a fraction of the novel, is just a bitingly sarcastic bisexual disaster.

Throughout the novel I kept thinking, “Arkady Martine is so much smarter than me.” Just, the clever and careful way the plot is constructed, the tiered way in which the political conspiracy reveals itself, the layering of various different motivations, the integration of literati culture, the complexity of the politics. It was all just astonishingly good and clever, and I loved that the book leaves us with some tantalizing and exciting threats for the next book, which I very much look forward to!

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