“Trust is not an endlessly renewable resource. Loyalty might be. For longer.”
With A Desolation Called Peace Arkady has achieved something quite rare in a sequel. In fact, I liked A Desolation Called Peace so much so that, when I looked back to my review for A Memory Called Empire, I found much of my criticism unfair. In my review, I describe AMCE as a case of ‘great concept, poor execution’ but now I wonder whether I just read it at the wrong time. All of this to say that for those worried that A Desolation Called Peace may suffer from ‘second book syndrome, I say, fear no more. A Desolation Called Peace was an exhilarating and wonderfully inventive read. Arkady’s world-building is phenomenal, the stakes are even higher than in AMCE, and we follow multiple characters, most of whom are plotting against one another. Political scheming abounds within these pages, each character has their agenda, no one is trustworthy or necessarily ‘likeable’. But I liked how bold Arkady is when it came to characterisation. She does not resort to easy ‘evil/good’ dichotomies and repeatedly challenges her characters’ ideas and views.
While much of AMCE was dedicated to introducing us to this world and learning of the Teixcalaanli Empire through Mahit’s Stationer eyes, A Desolation Called Peace provides a ‘first contact’ scenario. Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is fighting against a terrifying and unknown enemy, and requests the assistance of someone from the Information Ministry and it is Three Seagrass who takes on the job. Before making her way to the fleet Three Seagrass is reunited with Mahit who is not only struggling to reconcile herself with her imagos (of a young and old Yskandr) and who has more than one enemy at Lsel Station. Mahit’s linguistic skills make her an asset in this ‘first-contact’ situation so she finds herself tagging along with Three Seagrass. The narrative follows Three Seagrass and Mahit, and their feelings for each other, which are complicated by the fact that Three Seagrass views Stationers as ‘barbarians’, Nine Hibiscus, who not only has is engaged in a war against an unknown enemy but is aware that someone is conspiring against her, and 11-year-old Eight Antidote, who is a clone of His Brilliance the Emperor Six Direction and heir-apparent to the Sun-Spear Throne of Teixcalaan. Eleven years old, and is being pulled in different directions at court. I found each storyline to be deeply engaging and, to my surprise, I probably found Twenty Cicadas to be the most in The tension between the characters, who always seem to be assessing each other’s words and actions in an attempt to gauge their motivations and intentions, gives the narrative a fantastic edge.
Another central aspect of this novel is, of course, language. Arkady demonstrates incredible knowledge and originality when it comes to linguistics. The words her characters use have such nuance and meaning that it enhances any exchange they have (so we can just how much words matter in every discussion or conversation they have). Arkady incorporates many other interesting themes in her storylines: the fraught relationship between coloniser and colonised (which complicates any relationship Three Seagrass and Mahit may wish to have with one another), xenophobia (and, in some cases, its opposite), identity (especially with Mahit and Eight Antitode), memory, and ethics.
This novel certainly made me think, and re-think. Arkady has created a stunning world and her prose is as sharp as a knife (or dare I say, even badass?). As I wrote above, I liked this novel so much that it made me re-value my less than warm feelings towards its predecessor (something that happens…very rarely indeed). Perhaps this is because I started learning more about languages or maybe this time around I was able to connect with her story and characters because I read it at the ‘right’ time, but, in any case, I would definitely recommend this to fans of AMCE. The only thing I had trouble with is Teixcalaanli names (part is due to the fact that numbers come to me in my mother tongue and not in English). I read an arc that sadly did not come with a glossary and I had a hard time keeping their names straight. Ideally, I would also have liked to have re-read AMCE before sinking my teeth in A Desolation Called Peace. But, overall, this novel elevated my feelings towards this series and I actually look forward to re-reading it (and I hope that Arkady will write more!).
ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
my rating: ★★★★☆