A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire won both the Nebula and Hugo awards.

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It has overseas territories and commands vast land holdings. Its culture is widely adopted beyond its borders, and its military and economic might are felt in every corner of the globe. America is, like it or not, an empire.

In Arkady Martine’s smart, Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel A Memory Called Empire, Mahit Dzmare has just arrived on the homeworld of just such an empire—that of Teixcalaan—to represent her home, the space station Lsel. Before she can dip her toes into the intoxicating literature, architecture and lighter side of courtly politics there, however, she has work to do: Uncover the murderer of her predecessor and avert a succession crisis that threatens to swallow Lsel Station’s sovereignty and the empire itself.

Her job is made harder when an out-of-date brain implant containing the memories and identity of her predecessor goes on the fritz, taking away a trusted source of guidance and her last connection to home.

This book is a page-turner. The refreshingly cool-headed Mahit’s allies include her brilliant and creative handler Three Seagrass; and the sophisticated, polished imperial advisor Nineteen Adze. Her enemies include smooth, courtly types and particularly heartless bureaucrats. Between them there’s much more tense dialogue and politics than spaceship chases and laser battles, but there’s a little of those, as well.

Martine—the nom de plume of AnnaLinden Weller, a city planner and historian of the Byzantine and medieval Armenian history—has big thoughts about empires, institutional memory, systemic violence, technology and gender, and she has found in A Memory Called Empire a sandbox big enough for all of them at once. It imagines a universe where unexamined taboos are more dangerous than gender, and where institutional durability and integrity are important for tangible reasons.

Perhaps the most striking feature of this book has been reading it during America’s own succession crisis. Americans rightly worry about the precedent it sets and what the future will bring. A Memory Called Empire pulls back the focus to show what’s at stake for the people on the periphery when there’s chaos at the heart of an empire.

A sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, will be published in March of 2021.

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