Do you know hat time of the year it is?
Yes, the Hugo nominees are out! And I’ve signed myself up again to read as many of them as possible. Going down the Best Novel list, I have already read Gideon the Ninth – which I reviewed here – and I loved the hell out of it. But now voting is going to be a bit complicated because A Memory Called Empire is another excellent, if tonally different, addition to the shortlist.
And I’ll be damned if I didn’t love it too.
A Memory Called Empire is foremost a diplomacy drama in space. After the sudden death of their ambassador, Lsel Station sends Mahit Dzmare as their replacement into the heart of the Teixcalaanli Empire. Lsel Station has a precarious relationship with the Teixcalaanli, who are not only more militarily dominant, but culturally as well. But due in part to their closed-minded treatment of the stationers – who the Empire dismisses as nothing more than barbarians – the Teixcalaanli only have limited awareness of the advanced technology Lsel possesses.
When Mahit arrives to take up her new position, she’s carrying a newly installed implant in her brain. This implant – an imago – contains an impression of both the personality and memories of Yskandr, her deceased predecessor. Due to his sudden death, her imago is 15 years out of date, but even an out of date imago can provide Mahit with the experience she needs to help her adapt to court life. However, when Mahit and the Yskandr-impression discover that the actual Yskandr died under suspicious circumstances, the imago starts to malfunction, simultaneously throwing Mahit into political morass while robbing her of one of her greatest tools.
And about that tool; due to events that occurred under Yskandr’s tenure as ambassador, the imago technology is no longer cloaked from the Teixcalaanli political radar. And it just so happens that it has caught the interest of some very powerful people.
All this political intrigue occurs on the Teixcalaanli central planet, which is only ever referred to as City. I loved the feel of City – for me, it was less traditionally cyberpunk and more as if someone had taken the courtly scenes from Katherine Addison’s The Gobin Empire and transplanted them into a very old style sci-fi setting, like Azimov’s Foundation. It’s an urban metropolis surrounding an imperial heart, and it feels both realistic and fantastic at the same time.
I also loved Mahit as the protagonist. Her position as an ambassador would have been mentally fraying even if she hadn’t found herself in the centre of so much political drama. While she doesn’t love the threat the Empire poses towards Lsel station, she is still someone who has studied their culture and seen it as something to aspire to – a sign of modernity even – since she was young. One part of her is really to fall apart in excitement over experiencing their language and poetry, while the other part of her sits with the fear that if the empire goes unchecked, they would override what little independence Lsel station has left.
While the plot did stall in some places, overall A Memory Called Empire is another fantastic debut novel that’s rightfully gained a nomination. If you prefer your science fiction to have less explosive conflict and more political conflict, this should quickly make its way onto your to-read pile.
I don’t knock if it’s knocked Gideon off the top spot, but it’s tough competition.