Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
When the ship Ascension’s Red Harvest arrives at Lisel Station requesting a new ambassador for the Teixcalaanli Empire, Mahit Dzmare is despatched to represent her people as an independent state at the Imperial court. She is under strict instructions – preserve Lisel independence at all costs.
Dzmare’s predecessor, Yskandr died under mysterious circumstances whilst away from Lisel. Dzmare carries with her an Imago of his identity, a technological imprint of his personality that talks to her telepathically, an advantage when preparing to be an ambassador to an alien culture. But when she is presented with Yskandr’s body, the Imago flees and Dzmare is left alone to face a strange world and to try to get to the bottom of the previous ambassador’s murder.
Martine’s story takes a chapter or two to draw the reader in, but once it does, then it doesn’t let go. There is a strength and confidence to her writing that makes the strange future world of Teixcalaan realistic and palatable. The political manoeuvrings and murder mystery plot form an interesting narrative that is reminiscent of Asimov at his best. As a detective, Dzmare is no Elijah Bailey, but she is highly capable of engineering a solution to her problems while solving the mystery of her predecessor’s death.
The novums of Martine’s fiction are carefully deployed to support her plot. The Imago system in Dzmarre’s brain, the cloudhook employed by Three Seagrass to access a Teicalaani version of the world wide web, the planet to planet transport ships and more are carefully drawn with limitations. Martine is not using these devices as unregulated solutions; each has its limitations. The way in which those limitations are utilised as well, putting pressure on the writer’s characters is also a mark of how well the book has been put together.
On one or two occasions, Martine’s narrative does take a turn or two that raises questions for the reader. Dzmarre is quick to accept the trust of her assigned companions, Three Seagrass and Twelve Azalea. She does question their motives and that trust, but still acts with a great degree of faith in their support and discretion. Without their help it is likely that she would have no hope in getting to the bottom of the politics and the murder, so perhaps she had little choice but to do so?
Martine also includes some short reportage text at the start of each chapter, adding layers to her narrative. For the most part, this is only flavour, but later on, it becomes a means for the delivery of key plot elements, adding to our understanding of Lisel’s own political factions and how they are attempting to use or thwart Dzmarre’s mission.
Gradually, Martine draws together the threads of her story and Dzmarre enacts a plan amidst the chaos and turmoil of Teixcalaan’s politics. The conclusion completes the narrative and the aftermath leaves enough canvas for Martine to return to her fiction with another story should she choose to.
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