From the prologue, this book absolutely blew me away. It’s a twisty political intrigue, with an Aztec-influenced empire. It’s also a meditation on the meaning of empire from a person who is trying to keep her home from being swallowed by it while at the same time being entranced with its literature and language. It’s about how that language controls how we tell stories about ourselves and the world around us.
“You’ve said something meaningless.”
<Yes,> Yskandr agreed. <When I was ambassador it was my habit to say all sorts of meaningless things. You should try it. It’s quite enjoyable.>”
When the Teixcalaanli empire suddenly demands a new ambassador from Lsel Station, Mahit is chosen and given the imago – a recording of a person’s memories and experiences – of her predecessor, Yskandr. Unfortunately, it’s fifteen years out of date and not exactly helpful as to what could possibly have happened to the old ambassador. Mahit barely has time to arrive at the heart of the empire before she’s saddled with a Teixcalaanli Information Ministry liaison, Three Seagrass, and then presented with the former ambassador’s corpse. Mahit is left scrambling to figure out what’s going wrong in the empire and how her predecessor’s death fits in, if it’s even related at all.
“Be a mirror, she told herself again. Be a mirror when you meet a knife; be a mirror when you meet a stone. Be as Teixcalaanli as you can, and be as Lsel as you can, and—oh, fuck, breathe. That too.”
I adored Mahit and all her audacity, but most of all I loved how honest she was with herself. She’s loved Teixcalaanli literature since she was a teen, and she’s dreamed of even scoring high enough on the exams to apply to become a citizen. But once she’s there it’s clear that she doesn’t fit in and she never can, even for something as meaningless as composing throwaway poems about pool grout while drinking at a party. The sense of immersion in another culture was complete and absolutely entrancing, both for Mahit and for me. She’s in so out of her depth, and she knows it, and the best she can do is, well, keep swimming. She’s terrified but she keeps digging anyway, even after numerous assassination attempts, and she gathers allies on the strength of her personality as well.
“He’ll tell you it’s out of his own curiosity, and he won’t even lie. Him being curious is how we used to get into half of the trouble we got into.”
“How,” Mahit asked, amused despite herself, “did you get into the other half?”
“I make friends with terribly interesting people with terribly complicated problems.”
“So nothing has changed,” Mahit said, feeling on the verge of laughter; feeling again the absolute danger of thinking Three Seagrass was her friend like a Stationer could be her friend.”
The side characters were excellent. I loved Three Seagrass and her git-er-done attitude and Twelve Azalea’s flair for the dramatic, and the hilarious banter between the two old friends (they call each other “Petal” and “Reed”!!!) was lovely. My favorite part, of course, was the way Mahit’s relationship with Three Seagrass changed from work assignment to allies to friends to slow burn omg-just-kiss-already romance was *chef’s kiss.* I was suitably overawed by Nineteen Adze while at the same time wanting to tie dye her dang white robes because of how she treated Mahit, but she was an enormously complex and very human character.
“So much of who we are is what we remember and retell,” said Three Seagrass. “Who we model ourselves on, which epic, which poem.”
The worldbuilding is vivid and immersive, from the naming conventions to the food to exactly how much to widen your eyes to smile. The description of the empire as both something that Mahit has grown up loving and something she knows to fear is complicated but entrancing. There’s so many ideas here, from the forces that shape a culture to what makes a person them, but they all form a cohesive whole, along with that delightfully twisty intrigue. It’s part murder mystery and part court intrigue and it adds up to a very engrossing whole. And, even better, it’s queer as all get out.
Overall, I absolutely adored this book and I’ll be reading the next one immediately.