I am starting to wonder if my local library hasn’t hired someone new in charge of new purchases who might not be my reading twin. The library has suddenly started getting in new books that I personally want to read not long after they are published. A Memory Called Empire is among those titles.
The premise is pretty normal sounding: a new ambassador to the capital of the Teixcalaanli Empire (which spans planets and systems) arrives at her new job to discover that her predecessor died under mysterious circumstances. Mahit Dzmare not only has to deal with adjusting to the new culture and job while also figuring out what happened to the previous ambassador and dealing with some unexpected issues with a supportive/enhancement technology she was relying on. This could have gone down the tangled mess of boring path, but thankfully did not.
I have to admit I was a little worried since a novel based on political intrigue has the potential to drag and places, and this mostly did not. The whole novel takes place in a surprisingly short period of time given how much happens, and how much of it is thought or discussion between a few characters. Mahit really has to hit the ground running and adapt into a culture which she has studied extensively and prepared for, but naturally certain things catch her off guard, particularly when one of her main guides disappears pretty early on, and it’s not very clear what’s happened until fairly late in the story, and even then some details aren’t quite there. There is some intrigue going on in Mahit’s home world/station too, but those pieces don’t really seem to fit until the very end of the story. My only real issue here is that the individuals involved are not developed enough for those key little bits to be all that meaningful, important though some of them end up being to the resolution.
Besides the fast-paced plot, there are a lot of interesting characters. Quite a few of them have some complexity, frequently of the “Are you really what you’re seeming” variety, as in friend or foe. There is some focus in the Texicalaanli Empire on poetic expression as a major form of communication and many of the names of characters reflect this possibility. One of the best bits of the whole story is a small moment when someone is trying to explain to Mahit why someone’s chosen name is a little ridiculous; it’s a good excuse to explain the naming system but also have a little fun with it. My small-ish complaint where is that there could have been more presence of poetry given how everyone always talks about how important it is to the culture.
The story also has some suggestions about the nature of politics and imperialism, as well as (as the title suggests) memory, and life and death, and social systems. A lot of it is interesting and relevant, but it’s not so overt that the meaning messes with the story. It would have been pretty easy to do here, and thankfully, that particular problem was avoided.