Friday, June 18, 2021

Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

 It's early in the year, but I think this might end up being my favorite read of 2020.

This really is a beautiful book. The political intrigue and murder mystery are tightly plotted, and the pacing is good, but really, the book is about so much more than that.

As a language nerd, I very much appreciated the theme of culture shaping language, and language shaping how we perceive ourselves and our histories.

"Teixcalaan has seen eighty years of peace. Three of your lives, stacked up, since the last time one part of the world tried to destroy the rest of it."

There were border skirmishes reported every week. There'd been an outright rebellion put down on the Odile System just a few days back. Teixcalaan was not peaceful. But Mahit thought she understood the difference Six Direction was so fixated on: those were skirmishes that brought war to outside the universe, to uncivilized places. The word he'd used for "world" was the word for "city." The one that derived from the verb for "correct action".
I loved the philosophical elements of what does it mean to be a person? It was neat to explore this particularly through the eyes of Mahit, whose perspective on this answer is probably quite different from our own. Is personality just endocrine responses? Is a person just the sum of their memories?

I loved that this book discussed the biases inherent to artificial intelligence - that there is no such thing as a neutral algorithm.
There was an originating purpose for an algorithm, however distant in its past -- a reason some human person made it, even if it had evolved and folded in on itself and transformed. A city run by Ten Pearl's algorithm had Ten Pearl's initial interests embedded in it. A city run by an algorithm designed to respond to Teixcalaanli desires was not innocent of those same Teixcalaanli desired, magnified, twisted by machine learning.
Perhaps not since I've read Robin Hobb's Fool's Fate have I felt the same level of emotional tension while reading a book. Mahit's sense of loneliness and abandonment by her imago. The strange mix of both loving the cultural output of the Empire and the very real fear of the Empire destroying her home. The irony of self-discovery through culture that is foreign to your own, and in a foreign language. The mix of pride in being complimented in mastering imperial customs combined with the sadness in being subjugated and knowing that no matter your mastery you will never 'belong' in the Empire.

The dialogue, particularly between Three Seagrass and Twelve Azalea, was great. Really enjoyed their dry humor and banter (while also really feeling Mahit's envy of their friendship).

I wish I enjoyed the poetry in the book. I often felt like I didn't quite get it - but maybe that was the point. Like Mahit, the nuances of Teizcalaanli art is too alien.

I liked the way romance was weaved in - explicitly polyamorous and non-heteronormative. Love shapes the people and the events in small ways, rather than being massive story-shifting forces. But nor is the romance just orthogonal to the rest of the plot. The reveal of Yskandr being both in love with the emperor and with Nineteen Adze is a little thread that adds support and tension to the web of events, but it's not the keystone that the whole structure of the intrigue relies on. Even if he hadn't been in love with those people, his maneuvering could have made sense. But, the relationships also feel very real and human, and messy in the way those kinds of things can be messy.

I enjoyed that much of the rest of the universe was left mysterious. It makes me curious to discover what the next book will be about.

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