This post is a part of my 2020 Arthur C. Clarke reading project where I will be reading and reviewing all the nominated titles. You can found out my thoughts about this project in my introduction post: 2020 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist: Thoughts, Predictions & Reading Project.
Genre : Science Fiction
Publisher : Tor Books
Length : 462 pages
Format : eBook
Rating : 4 stars
Publication Date : March 26th 2019
Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.
Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.
Mahit Dzmare is an ambassador from Lsel, a small mining station. Her mission is to maintain a good relationship between her home station and the ever-expanding Teixcalaanli Empire. When Mahit lands on Teixcalaan, she discovers that her predecessor, Yksandr, has been murdered and that his close relationship with a few of the most powerful people in the Empire might be the cause of it.
Mahit has been fascinated by the Teixcalaanli culture since she discovered it as a child. Teixcalaanli citizens use poetry as a weapon, encoding political messages into their beautiful and historically charged verses. On Teixcalaan, one’s political credibility comes from their ability to master speech and metaphors. Knowledge literally equals power and Mahit is definitely drawn to this idea being feed Teixcalaanli dramas, books and poetry her entire life.
However, Lsel station has a very different use of memory and knowledge. As a small and planetless station, Lsel had to find another way to prevent the loss of knowledge: using imagos. Imagos are small implants that records people’s memories and experiences. At the death of the owner, the machines are removed and implanted in other people, allowing them to have access to the memories of their predecessors. One imago can be transferred from person to person and thus create what are called “imago-lines” containing memories of dozens of people. Of course, imagos are a state secret and no one outside of Lsel is supposed to share the invention to outsiders and especially not to the Empire.
Before being sent out to Teixcalaan, Mahit is implanted with an outdated version of Yksandr’s imago. The problem is that this version is fifteen years out of date since her predecessor didn’t bother to make regular copies of it. Imagos usually take years to fully integrate to one’s personality but Mahit only has a couple of months before being rushed out to the Empire. This short integration time coupled with a sabotage attempt of her implant explains why it suddenly stops working the day she arrives to Teixcalaan. The few outdated memories that could have helped her are gone and she finds herself completely alone on the city-planet.
Despite years of study and her love for the Teixcalaanli culture, Mahit feels like her knowledge will never be enough, that she will never belong, that she will always be other, a non-citizen, a barbarian. However, she needs to understand the political situation in the Empire and she needs to do it quickly. If she doesn’t, she will end up as dead as Yksandr and she will fail to protect her station: from the Empire and, from the looming alien threat at the edge of the universe.
A Memory Called Empire is a cool novel. It checked all the elements I usually love in books. It’s a political science fiction book with a rich worldbuilding and brilliant female characters that aren’t afraid to fight for what they want to protect. Check, check and check. It also discusses the consequences of colonialism and the ethics of humans modifications. Check and check. Oh and, it also has a city controlled by an AI and an amazing character-naming system (Three Seagrass, Twelve Azalea, Six Direction!!!). Check and CHECK!
Clearly, this book had all the right elements to work for me and it did. I had a great time reading this book, it was well-written with a rich and complex worldbuilding while still being very readable: the plot was surprisingly easy to follow (which I didn’t expect after reading the confusing prologue). I also really enjoyed how Martine discussed imperialism, colonialism and how cultural invasion can be as deadly as military and economic invasion. This aspect reminded me a lot of The Traitor Baru Cormorant and, any book that can gives me similar feelings to The Traitor is a good one.
I completely understand why the book won this year’s Hugo award and it wouldn’t surprise me if it won the Clarke as well. It’s a great debut and a promising start to a new series (though, the ending is very satisfying and the book stands well on its own if you want to stop there). However, this book didn’t quite blow me away, I don’t know why, all the elements of a five stars-read were there and yet, I didn’t completely ace the “perfect book test”. Maybe it’s because I read it after The City in the Middle of the Night and that I loved this book so much that it was hard to surpass it. Maybe it’s just because I’m very hard to please. (Probably?). I don’t know. Make of that what you will, it’s still a very good read and I would still highly recommend it!