Book Reviews

Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire ended up on the top of my TBR pile through a sort of coincidence.

Online college is incredibly strange and tedious. I try to fill as much time as I can with reading to break up the horrible amounts of screen time required. That being said, I am quite the nerd and rather adore learning, so in all reality I’m thrilled that my situation still allows me to pursue my education. Positive perspective helps, right?

Any time somebody (student, professor, or the occasional guest speaker) recommends a book in class, I immediately rather slyly pull out my phone and add the title to my Goodreads list. I’ve been trying to expand my reading habits past Young Adult this fall, and class discussions often produce great recommendations. You can check out all my Goodreads TBR activity here.

This is how I came across A Memory Called Empire. It was pitched to me as a space-opera with pretty cool use of language. And, as a Writing major, I thought heck yeah cool language! I added the book to my list expecting it to be a read for the far off future. That is, until I ended up at my local library the next week and was face to face with the librarian at the search and help desk. I had promised myself I didn’t need another book to read this fall. But I couldn’t stop thinking about A Memory Called Empire. The book was ordered from another library for me and a few days later I was diving in.

The story follows Mahit Dazmere as she begins her journey as an ambassador representing her small home station in the heart of Teixcalaanli Empire. Her station’s previous and now deceased ambassador, Yskandr, is supposed to be a conscious voice supplied by a technological implant in the back of Mahit’s head. Yskandr’s preserved consciousness is supposed to help Mahit navigate the complicated and poetic world of Teixcalaanli politics. Mahit knows she will have to rely on the guidance of Yskandr’s advice in her head in order to protect her station from being annexed by the Empire. That is, until, Mahit is shown Yskandr’s physical lifeless body and the technology that is supposed to be her personal private guide to the Empire goes silent in her mind.

Mahit must work to unravel the suspicious circumstances surrounding Yskandr’s death and save her station without his help, all the while being thwarted and enticed by Teixcalaanli culture.

Mahit is an outsider, or “barbarian”, as the Teixcalaan citizens refer to anyone from stations like the one Mahit is from. And yet Mahit has studied Teixcalaan all her life and finds their use of language and rhetoric draws her in.

The culture is enticing. There are ciphers, unique systems used for naming of Teixicalaan citizens, and poetry oration contests. Arkady Martine deeply embeds linguistics into the sociocultural life of Teixcalaan. As an outsider, Mahit is always working to understand and present herself appropriately in this society she has studied but never participated in. Each time she presents a stroke of brilliance, the story’s Teixicalaani characters are quick to remind us that Mahit is not a member of their society and culture, and that the Empire which threatens her home is ever so enticing.

This story speaks to those feelings of being drawn into noninclusive yet widespread cultures that threaten to overtake. Mahit struggles constantly with this conflict between seeking the acceptance of members of the Empire, and also maintaining her identity as a person from a station. She has pride for her identity, and the Empire continues to draw her in and then rebuke her for being a “barbarian”. Martine certainly isn’t shying away from the colonization narrative and explaining the psychological toll it takes. The Empire demands so much of Mahit for her to be accepted, and she is wrapped up in the beauty of it whilst also bearing the brunt of the harm.

Arkady Martine gives a strong example of how to lay down a rich foundation of world building in A Memory Called Empire. While Mahit goes on the journey of being enticed by the poetry and language of Teixicalaani society, I find myself having the same experiences. The poetic culture is dramatic and theatrical with harsh undercurrents. I find myself in awe of the poetry contests and intimate usage of language. How can a society so beautiful be such a threat? The danger this sort of society poses becomes extremely prevalent and I understand why Mahit desires to belong.

Outside of the rich themes explored, the use of language is just so interesting. Literary analysis is imbued in the political structure which creates beautiful twisting riddles for the characters and the reader to solve. I don’t want to give too much away, but for anyone who loves books with creative connotations and usages of language, A Memory Called Empire is a great pick. As fall draws to a close, I’m glad A Memory Called Empire ended up on my list!

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