A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I tried very hard not to be influenced by the knowledge that this won the 2020 Hugo, but I think I failed. It’s certainly very different from the previous nominees I’ve read. I think this book plays it a little safer than the previous two books I read did. A Memory Called Empire put forth a fascinating world with interesting characters and languages, but it feels like it took fewer risks.
Teixcalaan the empire reminds me a bit of America as it is today, how it dominates so much of the world despite geographically dominating relatively little. I did catch the Aztec references and thought they were intriguing. Still, I felt just a bit disconcerted by a seemingly-white author borrowing so many elements from Aztec culture. That said, I don’t know Martine’s identity, and she could be light-skinned or mixed, as I am.
I’m really interested in how the Teixcalaanli language is so referential. I’m sure there are languages and cultures that are actually like this, maybe even my own, but because I speak one language, this just reminded me of what it’s like speaking to people on Tumblr. How we all know the same memes are constantly referencing and remaking those memes as a memes to communicate, how we references the same events, our Befores and Afters.
This book is supremely readable on a sentence-to-sentence level. For a book that is so dedicated to the use of language, I expected this book to have the kind of technical control over its own sentence construction I’d found in previous Hugo nominees. This book privileged plot over sentences mechanics, and as someone who loves her sentence mechanics, I was a little disappointed by that, but more plot-focused readers might enjoy it. For these reasons, it felt a little jarring when Teixcalaanli poetry entered the page — sometimes beautiful, sometimes bad, but always with a rhythm and a meter that made it such a contrast to the surrounding paragraphs. As a language nerd, I rested in those stanzas: Released, I am a spear in the hands of the sun.
I did appreciate when the language was used to convey an emotional energy, which happened more toward the end of the book. “[—] thought of how the water shimmered too, how water and light moved the same way, if you thought about physics correctly. Ripples.” That line worked so well to convey the emotional exhaustion the character felt.
Character-wise, the dynamic between Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass was so much fun. I felt very invested in the bond between them and their interactions, which had such interesting layers to it — layers which I didn’t entirely understand, as an American living in America (another kind of empire), but perhaps a reader who grew up outside of an empire would understand. There was an interesting recurring theme of Mahit and Three Seagrass arguing and misunderstanding each other over the question of who is a citizen, who is a person, who is human, how an empire works, what a person’s blindspots are within and without an empire. “If you were one of us,” and all that, and the lines between being a citizen and being a xenophile.
There was a death count as the book went on, and I think some of those character deaths felt rather cheap and predictable. There were very few, if any, character deaths that I-reading-as-Mahit mourned because Mahit had clearly never really bonded with those characters. The sadness didn’t land because the story hadn’t worked to endear those characters to us. Felt like a missed opportunity.
I am fascinated by the emotional story arc that builds and crescendos at the end of the book: “She wouldn’t have become part of that strange triangle.” For me, this was the most interesting part of the book — everything about the permutations of love, all the various forms it can take, and what it means to be a ghost or to be born again. There are so many possible emotional complications of a dead ambassador being replaced with a younger, alive ambassador who meets all of the dead ambassador’s friends, acquaintances, and lovers. I wish that had been explored sooner because it felt like such an interesting complication that came to a head very late in the book.
The imagery, when rendered as metaphor or simile, is remarkably consistent — fruits/floral imagery or space/stationer imagery. As an aforementioned language nerd, I thought the metaphor choice felt very appropriate to these characters, their referential experiences, and the cultures from which they hail.
The only major critique I have of this book is that it takes place in such a short time, and so much changes in those handful of days, but as a reader, I couldn’t appreciate those changes because we never got to know the world well enough in the first place. If the world is never going to be the same, I want to know what it was like before. Yes, six days can change an empire and an entire sector of space, but squeezing all that story into six days meant we didn’t get the sense of scale that monumental changes should warrant. It all just kinda happened…I’ll maybe edit this part later if I figure out how to word this. In my opinion, the timeline didn’t match up with the worldbuilding, is what I’m trying to say.