Musings on Empire and Power

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan #1)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.

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Middlegame Ups the Stakes

Middlegame (Middlegame, #1)Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


“Her smile is the first brick in what she will one day call the improbable road. Today, now, in this moment, they are beginning their voyage toward the Impossible City… The deed is done. It’s too late to turn back now.”

This is one of those books that redefines what a single book is capable of achieving alone. This book is comprehensive, moving through such a range of concepts, layers upon layers of metaphor, worldbuilding, and timelines that it feels like at least three books in one. I have so many questions for Seanan McGuire: did she outline this book? Did she outline the up-and-under stories, too? What did those outlines even look like? In what order was this written? How did the manuscript change from draft to draft?

This book is a feat. Every single event in here is the culmination of all previous choices, and this is both explicit and implicit. I truly can’t count how many timelines exist on the page, because for every explicit timeline reset, there were more that happened between the lines of the page. The final series of events is as inevitable as it is improbable.

The writing in here is so strong, even at the sentence-to-sentence level. I love the parenthesis and how McGuire makes her punctuation work for her to tell the story and imply how much information is being consciously acknowledged, what’s actually a secret, and what’s unknown to the characters. This is a technique I see more in fanfiction than published work, and it works super well here.

McGuire has this way of sinking down into her characters’ perspectives until it feels like I, as the reader, am occupying some small corner of the characters’ minds, watching it all play out but unable to change anything. I do think this comes through much more strongly with the twins, their friends, and allies, and less so with Reed and Leigh, but seeing as the book focuses so much more on the twins’ side of the story, that makes sense, even if I wish we’d had a little more “sinking down” into the other characters’ heads.

Every emotion in here is a gut-punch. As the book goes on, we get deeper and deeper into one character’s perspective, and I absolutely didn’t expect them to become my favorite, but god, I adore them. This book obviously does many things very well, but if I had to pick one thing that worked perfectly, it’s the fact that in a book full of horrific tragedies, there’s this one tragedy that stands out. It’s not foregrounded very often, but when it does, the bitter fact is this: if a tragedy were to befall the twins, they’d have each other and all the power in the universe as consolation, but not everyone has something as consolation. Sometimes, everything that ever mattered to you is ripped away, and there’s emptiness in the world, and you’re so tired and just want to rest, but you can’t… and it doesn’t even matter. (I have a lot of feelings about this minor storyline.) (Hands down, my favorite part of this book.) (I would fight a war for this character.)

There’s a fascinating commentary on how intelligence gets gendered. Dodger and Roger both observe how the world just doesn’t know what to do with a mathematics genius who’s a girl, and how she just doesn’t fit the world’s idea of a smart girl. A girl can be book-smart, but math-smart just isn’t normal. This fades as the characters grow up and instead becomes a commentary on strength, on who gets to weak and who have to always, always be strong. Who is allowed to fall down and cry and stay fallen, and who can’t. I’m still thinking my way through the idea of strength, to be honest, because most, if not all, of the characters in here can fit that; there is very little rest in here for anyone.

Having finished the book, I’m especially interested in the parental characters and in the contrasts between their two sets of parents. Also, I feel like one of the parents was characterized a little inconsistently. One of the twins has this fascinating book-long journey about when a lie is permissible, but I thought the implication at first was that this kid needs powerful lies to save them because they’re terrified on their abusive parent. As in, why do you need a life to save your life when you are still a literal child? But it was only there at the beginning, and then they have a normal parent-child relationship for the rest of the book. I just feel like the implication was in there from a previous draft… oooo, or maybe a previous timeline?

There are some things I wish we’d gotten more of or spent more time on, especially toward the end of the book. For as long as it is, some things were barely in the book. The Up-and-Under as a metaphor for alchemy and a parallel for Roger and Dodger was excellent when delivered side-by-side with the main story, but when the main story begins using Up-and-Under terminology literally, the logic of the story falls apart for me. I still enjoy it! But I do think we needed more explanation for what is literally happening. The end feels a bit disconnected from the rest of the book for this reason. I had lingering questions, like what exactly happened between Asphodel and her enemies? Why would manifesting the Impossible City in their world be a controversial idea? Also, what even is the Impossible City? “The whole damn Impossible City is about to fall on your head” sounds super cool, but I still have no idea what that actually would look like, physically, literally, etc.

This is second time I’ve read a Hugo-nominated book and been so blown away that it’s revised my standards, so the lesson I’m taking is this “read all the nominees” challenge I’m doing should be a yearly routine.

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Quiet Lives on the Edge of Space

Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers, #3)Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Years ago, I remember hearing buzz about Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, things like what a different approach to science fiction this was and that it was super inclusive story.

This was in the back of my mind as I started Record of a Spaceborn Few knowing that this would be a “different” sci-fi story, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I enjoyed this book and will probably read more of Becky Chambers work at some point, but am left with mixed feelings about this first reading experience.

Things I loved: the characters, the genuine thought and consideration of the question of “well, how would a bunch of humans survive in space?”. I love the anthropologic curiosity and approach to all these different races, but especially to the born-in-captivity Exodans.

Things I didn’t not like, but wish I’d understood about the book going in: this book is slow. The plot is very barebones, and the actual big, inciting incident happens two-thirds of the way through the book. The description on the back of the book kept describing a big tragedy, but I didn’t even notice when that tragedy happened. The book begins with a tragedy, obviously, but then there’s something else “big” later in the book which starts the “plot” rolling, but to me, the tragedy in the prologue felt so much more moving and shocking than what came later. This is a quiet story, which I didn’t really understand before. The danger and suspense comes almost entirely from character’s internal mechanisms. I don’t not like it, because I do like the characters, but it’s also been a few days now since I finished Record, and I still feel like what I actually just read was just a very long first act.

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The Rending and The Nest

The Rending and the NestThe Rending and the Nest by Kaethe Schwehn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a strange, wondrous book. A blurb on the back cover draws attention to its post-apocalyptic literary cousins, Oryx and Crake and Station Eleven, and those comparisons ring true. While The Rending and the Nest is less interested in the why and the how of the apocalypse, there is a similarity in the quiet pace and menacing atmosphere. The few possible explanations that come out of this book are tempered by reader interpretation; this is not a story to be passively read. The lingering message of the book is that Mira and the other survivors will never know why the Rending happened or why their Babies are not flesh-and-blood children, and it doesn’t matter why. All that matters is the stories they choose to tell themselves about what happened.

Something that struck me at the end of the book is the respect with which the women of Zion are treated after giving birth to their Babies. In an impossible situation that no one else understands, other characters still respect the love and attachment that Zion women feel for them.

This is definitely a book I will want to read again. Another win for my post-apocalyptic shelf.

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