A Memory Called Empire
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue.
A Memory Called Empire. Arkady Martine.
Original Publication: 2019 (Tor/Macmillan)
Current Availability: Hardcover, Trade Paperback, eBook (multiple sources)
Released, my tongue
will speak visions.
Released, I am a spear in the hands of the sun.
- Three Seagrassīs war poem
Plot and Story
The galactic empire of Teixcalaan has spread over a sizeable part of the known galaxy. On its fringe, small worlds and space habitats live an uneasy existence, avoiding conquest or cultural colonisation by dint of political maneuvering and making themselves indispensable as trade partners. One such space habitat sends its ambassador, a young but tough and resourceful woman named Mahit Dzmare, to Teixcalaan, upon the death of the old ambassador. She teams up with her perky-but-competent Teixcalaanli cultural liaison, Three Seagrass, to solve the mystery of her predecessorīs death.
The neurological implant that is supposed to provide Mahit with the knowledge of the former ambassador malfunctions, she discovers that he was murdered, and before she knows it, she is swept up in a court intrigue that may spell ruin for not only the Empire, but also her own home station. As the warships start maneuvering, the populace revolts, and the cityīs AI algorithms begin glitching, she and Three Seagrass have little time to exert what influence they have to keep the crisis from devouring the Empire.
Genre and Style
So far this is classic space opera plot. There is a gigantic interstellar empire, decadent but still vigorous, steeped in culture and tradition, an aging, frail Emperor brooding on the throne, vicious contenders for the succession, and free communities on the fringe pitched against the Imperial political juggernaut that will eventually be eating them up piecemeal, surviving by being more inventive and practical than their hulking neighbour. There’s even an alien invasion force threatening the borders, although it is mentioned only in passing.
To make sure the reader appreciates just how Byzantine and culturally intricate the Teixcalaan Empire is, we view it mainly through the eyes of Mahit Dzmare, who is a semi-barbarian often out of her depth despite having studied Teixcalaanli culture from birth and owning a quick mind. We also get glimpses from the wry and sometimes irreverent observations of her own culture by Three Seagrass. And we are awed, because it is such a compelling and magnificent view, brought to life by the protagonists enacting the scene.
Style and Technique
This is where the book excels. Description (often sidetracked by Mahit’s internal narrative) is fresh, occasionally wry, occasionally sarcastic, and always insightful. Dialogue is witty and many-layered, with allusions, obfuscation, double and triple meanings in each and every sentence, giving a whole new meaning to the term “cultural refinement”. (I cannot imagine the book being translated into another language and still retaining this quality.) The dialogue’s quality is on par with the best that a master like Jack Vance offers in the best of his works, and is endowed with a compelling naturalness of human emotion even through the most stilted of formal proceedings.
Following the intricate plot is difficult at first, with the many offices, ministries and power groups, and the many different political actors entering the scene. These figures’ motives are at first unfathomable, and their actions seem random (to Mahit, and by extension, the reader). The author seems to have been aware of this as a problem, and successfully implemented a number of subtle literary devices to soften the impact on the reader and make understanding easier.
Teixcalaanli names are in the classic Mayan tradition of a numeral followed by the name of a flower or inanimate object: Fourteen Lever, Nineteen Adze, Eleven Conifer. The reader may hardly remember the numeral, but the second part is surprisingly easy to recall, especially since most names are subtly indicative of either the personality of the bearer or their function in the plot. Twenty-nine Bridge is the palace functionary whom the protagonists have to pass to get an audience with his Illuminated Majesty the Emperor; Nineteen Adze is a dangerous woman, sharp and forceful; One Lightning is a brash, war-mongering general. This helps a lot with following who is who throughout the story.
Offices also have Mayan-sounding names, but those names also subtly allude to their functions. State-endorsed scientists are called ixplanatl, and the sound of the term evokes both explanation and exploration. Mahitīs companion Three Seagrass is an asekreta of the Information Ministry, a secretary as well as a secret keeper.
Mahit, as the heroine, also provides an anchor point the non-Teixcalaanli reader can instantly relate to. As a barbarian, her observations are much closer to our own, and help put the multi-layered Imperial culture into proper perspective. Three Seagrass and, for some time, Mahit’s predecessor’s mind recording, are there to unobtrusively explain political context without ever becoming a deus ex machina. With those practical author’s devices, what might have been a chore and required a stack of notesheets turns into an enjoyable and smooth reading experience, and the complexity of the setting becomes spice rather than obstruction.
Still, the book is not exactly suitable for casual reading, even though the action is relatively straightforward. It will be difficult to remember all of the wealth of important detail (and all detail is important with Martine!) if at some point you put the book away and resume reading a few days later. Fortunately, this is less of a problem than one would think – the novel is light-hearted enough and so full of pleasant and interesting banter between the characters that it is hard to put down anyway.
The paperback book is large, solid and blocky, not exactly easy to carry around, and quite appropriately so. This is not a book one reads casually in snatches between stops on the tram, rather a book one sits down near the fireplace to read with plenty of time to spare and a cat on one’s lap.
The cover by Jaime Jones deserves special mention. It is a magnificent rendering of the Emperor’s throne room (if somewhat different from the way the Imperial dais is described in the book), and it is wonderfully allusive. The book’s recurring imagery of rays emanating from the Emperor (a fan of spears on the Imperial battle flag, the name of the War Ministry – Six Outreaching Palms – even Emperors’ names like Six Direction or Twelve Solar-Flare) is neatly mirrored in the depicted throne’s architecture, with spikes radiating outward in every direction. Half of the throne is shadowed, hinting at the dangerous secrets that the ambassador (who is standing in the foreground) will have to unravel. It is this half that the Emperor averts his gaze from, and it is this half that Mahit faces. The impression is that dark shadows gather behind the throne, and if viewed that way, the rays emanating from the throne instead become a claw grasping inward at the Imperial figure seated on it.
While the throne’s rays and spires all terminate in the Emperor’s figure and should make him the centre of the picture, they don’t. Instead, he seems to blend in with the throne’s machinery, a part of the throne rather than a human being. The real focus, well and subtly done by the artist with the planes of light, is on the ambassador. Mahit is a sharply outlined dark figure standing not in a straight line from the throne, but slightly out to one side, hinting at her position as an outsider but also placing her in opposition to the plane of shadow on the right.
A Memory Called Empire and Traveller
While not at all related to Traveller, the book is a good inspiration read for anyone intending to play an Imperial noble or Aslan courtier. Especially the dialogue is something players can take a leaf out of Martine’s book of, exactly the sort of acerbic threat, triple entendre or political insinuation under a veneer of witty pleasantry that should be the bread and butter of any campaign laced with court intrigue. The Teixcalaanlitzlim, with their intricate culture, conservativism, and collective air of superiority, positively scream “Vilani!”. In fact, the setting is much reminiscent of the First Imperium in its heyday, and much of it is translatable to any decadent-but-still-vigorous empire you care to name. On this basis (and on that of sheer literary enjoyment, of course) I recommend it warmly to any fellow Traveller player.