A Memory Called Empire absolutely blew me away, and this book is no different. It continues the first book’s exploration of identify, memory and society, with the addition of a completely alien species and the need to avert total war. So, you know, no pressure, Mahit.
“She thought of Eleven Lathe, her poetic model, her hero, writing Dispatches from the Numinous Frontier out alone amongst his aliens, the Ebrekti. Could she do worse? Certainly, but perhaps not much worse—and then, gleeful and bitter, she thought, Fuck you, watch me try, in Twelve Azalea’s eternally silenced voice.”
The story picks up a few months after the events of A Memory Called Empire, with Mahit back on Lsel Station. I initially had some trepidation that the book started with a character other than her, but as the plot unfolded, I forgot about that completely. Unlike the first book, which was solely from Mahit’s point of view, this one also has Three Seagrass, now part of the Information Ministry; Nine Hibiscus, the new yaotlek tasked with dealing with the alien threat on Teixcalaan’s borders; and Eight Antidote, the eleven year old heir to the throne. Each character is dealing with separate and immediate problems. Nine Hibiscus needs to figure out how to stop the alien invaders while simultaneously dealing with a possible insurrection within her fleet. Three Seagrass, still reeling from the death of her best friend, answers Nine Hibiscus’ request for an Information Ministry specialist to come try to communicate with the aliens. Mahit doesn’t want the Stationers to find out about her highly illegal and possibly-still-sabotaged imago, and is dealing with the double (triple) vertigo of no longer feeling at home on the Station. And Eight Antidote, no longer a baby according to himself, is trying to find his new place in the palace with Nineteen Adze as emperor.
“The self that experienced and the self that evaluated, wondered, Is this when I feel real? Is this when I feel like a civilized person?
And the self that sounded like Yskandr, dark and amused: Is this when I forget what being a Stationer feels like? How about now? Now? Are we still Mahit Dzmare?”
The four points of view weave around each other: the Teixcalaanli fleet commander devoted to her empire, the Teixcalaanli woman who can’t help setting her teeth against a new problem, the woman who’s not even sure who she is any longer except she’s not Teixcalaanli and not a Stationer, and the child learning how to become an emperor. It was immensely satisfying and a masterful way to show various sides of the conflict, how each of the characters was trying to do their best (or what they think of as best) to in a sea of impossibly hard choices. I thought I was fully prepared for how agonizing the viewpoints of Three Seagrass and Mahit would be, especially in regards to each other (I was not), but I was unexpectedly completely swamped by Eight Antidote’s mix of intelligence, audacity and the last vestiges of childlike naivety. And then there’s Nine Hibiscus, who’s trying to deal with an insurrection and murderous rampaging aliens and now an Information Ministry spook and her pet barbarian, not to mention an infestation of cats in the air ducts. She’s clever and loyal and so Teixcalaanli it’s a stark contrast to the others.
“<Exile isn’t something self-imposed.>
He was wrong about that, Mahit thought, exile happened in the heart and the mind long before it happened to the body that moved in space, across borders[.]”
What Mahit is dealing with on the personal level – the possibility of a relationship with Three Seagrass – is the same thing that Lsel Station is dealing with: assimilation versus isolation. Lsel Station is, in some ways, no better than the empire. There are factions that want to pretend that the Empire never found them, but that’s an impossibility, especially to Mahit, whose life has been formed around Teixcalaanli literature. Even with that – and all the self awareness of being in love with a culture that’s trying to devour your own – Mahit is a barbarian to the Teixcalaanlitzlim, even to Three Seagrass, and barely qualifies as human to others. But the mysterious aliens are even worse, and it’s a political brangle as to whether they’ll try to communicate with them, as Nine Hibiscus intends, or just continue trying to destroy them. It’s hard not to see the parallels to Lsel and Mahit, and it’s done so expertly. The writing veers from terrifying to lyrical to hilarious (Yskandr, of course), effortlessly picking up threads from the previous book and expanding on them. It’s dense but in an immensely, immersively satisfying way, and the pacing was perfect.
“Language is not so transparent, but we are sometimes known, even so. If we are lucky.”
Nothing like ripping your heart out with one of the last lines of the book. I really hope this isn’t the end of the series, and I especially want more of the graphic novel from Lsel Station that’s quoted at the beginning of some of the chapters. Whatever this author chooses to do in the future, I will be following her closely.
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.