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A Memory Called Empire : Book Review

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A Memory Called Empire
by Arkady Martine      ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

Yet another example of great concept, poor execution.

A Memory Called Empire is an ambitious first instalment. Sadly, the interesting topics and discussions approached by the novel were diminished by an unclear world-building and by a monotone storyline.

“Three Seagrass gave Mahit a look which clearly expressed, despite the fundamental cultural differences in habitual facial expression, a chagrined admiration of her nerve.”

The main focus of the story is language. The protagonist is Mahit Dzmare, Lsel Station’s new ambassador, who is sent to the capital of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire. Mahit tries to navigate her new position and surroundings but struggles to reconcile herself with a culture that poses a threat to her own one (the people from Lsel Station—Stationers—are considered ‘barbarians’). Things are complicated by the mysterious death of her predecessor and by the conflict that seems to brewing beneath the surface of this supposedly civil and powerful city.

“So perfectly imperial, to have messages made of light and encrypted with poetry, and require a physical object for propriety’s sake.”

The world Martine has created has potential. Sadly, I was never drawn into the story or its characters.
The political intrigue was barely there. There were a lot of repetitive conservations which came across as a ‘lithe’ banter, not very amusing or clever. Characters attributed a lot of value and significance to things that had little to no importance in the overall storyline.
The Teixcalaanli language had some interesting components. Teixcalaanlitzlim have different mannerism and expressions to that of the Stationers (they smile with their ‘eyes’ rather than their teeth) but theses weren’t as well explored as some of the ‘technical’ aspects of the Teixcalaanli language. Martine does however render the nuances that words and a language can have:

“I am terrified of you, your Excellency, she said, using the word for ‘terror’, which, in poetry, could also mean ‘awed’. The sort of adjective that was applied to atrocities or divine miracles. Or emperors, which Mahit assumed were in many ways both at once.”

One of the reasons why I didn’t connect with the character is that they have terrible names. I guess I couldn’t believe in characters who were described in one or two lines and, worse still, they had depersonalising names: Three Seagrass, Twelve Azalea, Six Helicopter, Two Lemon, Three Sumac….the list goes on and one. This combination of a number+word created a lot of confusion. Which wasn’t helped by the general lack of individuality shown by these characters.I understand that this uniformity is in some way a part of the Teixcalaanli culture but at times they seemed excessively similar to one another. A lot of the characters were meant to be clever and cunning but came across as anything but.
Mahit herself lacks history. Her character seems to exist only from the moment she has become the new ambassador. The dynamics between her and her imago (the memory of the now deceased ambassador) made her slightly more appealing…but her imago was MIA for a lot of her narrative…so that didn’t really improve her as a character.
The characters move from one interior to the next often showing very little autonomy or initiative. Scenes that should have had some emotional impact felt flat and impersonal.
The muddled world building gave the impression that the Teixcalaanli Empire has been existing for a short amount of time. It was all too colourless for my taste.
Overall, this was a very generic sci-fi. It borrowed a lot from existing empires and offered very little innovation. Still, it was far from terrible, and if you can look past a poorly constructed universe (which focuses on a rather bland society), you might be able to appreciate this.

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