** Some spoilers for the plot of Ancillary Justice in the review of later books in the series **
Space opera can definitely be big, loud and dumb and that can be fun and exciting. But I love my space opera to be populated by complex, conflicted people (and other beings) living in intricate worlds with a deep culture and history. Add beautiful writing, and big questions about identity and ethics, and I am in heaven. So I loved A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine right from the beginning.
The main character, Mahit Dzmare, has been sent to the City at the heart of the Teixcalaanli empire – a place where the word for the city, world and empire are the same – as the new ambassador from Lsel Station, which has not (yet) been annexed into the empire, but feels the tidal pull of its cultural dominance. Mahit is enthralled by Teixcalaanli culture, acutely aware of how she can never match the ability of its elite citizens to deftly deploy a literary allusion.
Mahit is also carrying an imago, a brain implant that allows her to access the memories of her predecessors, a secret technology that is central to Lsel Station’s own culture and ability to survive as a small population in a risky environment. Her immediate predecessor’s last upload was fifteen years ago, leaving her dangerously underprepared for her new role. She learns on her arrival that he is dead, under suspicious circumstances, pushing her out of her depth into dangerous waters, with only two new-found friends to cling to as she tries to uncover who killed Yksander and why, and to keep Lsel Station out of the path of the Empire’s expansion.
Martine immerses Mahit in a vividly realised imperial culture, as an outsider mixing in the loftiest of circles. I could see the allure of the empire to a smart ambitious young woman from just outside its fringe, and also feel the dread of being engulfed by its military, economic and cultural might. The mystery of Yksander’s fate, his role in imperial politics, and the growing likelihood of civil war drive an exciting plot that twists and turns within the carefully constructed internal logic of an alien but all too human culture.
I immediately bought the sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, to find out what happens next. This is a solid second chapter, but doesn’t sing like the first. We follow Mahit home to Lsel Station, as she struggles to avoid entrapment in station politics, and then into a war zone as her Teixcalaanli friend Three Seagrass bluffs her way into a first contact assignment and drags Mahit along as a language expert.
The close-up view of the Teixcalaanli military is an interesting perspective, and the aliens are deliciously alien. But I had trouble suspending my disbelief that a successful empire would take such a rushed and amateurish approach to first contact, and the plot’s turns were much more transparent.
While reading Martine’s novels, I found myself constantly reminded of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, in a good way. I am not suggesting that Martine stole from Leckie, but that they both mined the history of successful earth empires in their world building. So I just had to reread.
Ancillary Justice remains one of my favourite books ever. A masterpiece. Main character Breq is the surviving fragment of Justice of Toren, a troop carrier manned by ancillaries, the bodies of those defeated and annexed by the Radchaaian empire reanimated into the collective consciousness of the ship. A dual timeline narrative switches between Breq’s individual present, on a mission to kill Anaander Mianaai, the Radchaaian emperor, and her* collective past as a seemingly routine post-annexation occupation mission sets Justice of Toren on a path to betrayal and destruction.
Unlike A Memory Called Empire, Ancillary Justice never takes us to the heart of empire. The closest we come is Seivander Vendaai, one of Breq’s former officers that she finds lying in the snow, dying of exposure, drug addiction, and culture shock after awakening from stasis to find the missed centuries have pushed her family far down the social hierarchy. The action takes place on the edges of empire, where the impact of annexation is most visible, and the tensions between expansion and consolidation are the strongest. Out on the edges one version of the many-bodied emperor may be reachable by the fragment of a starship pretending, or learning how, to be human.
Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, similarly to A Desolation Called Peace, have an extremely hard act to follow and don’t match the greatness of the first instalments. Both are set in a single planetary system, where Breq has been placed in a position of influence, following the resolution of her assasination attempt on one of the Anaander Mianaais, drawn into the brewing war between at least two factions within the emperor herself. Complicating matters is another deliciously alien alien, the translator for the mysterious and powerful Presger, whose opinion of the Significance of humans is vital.
As Breq prepares to defend the version of empire she finds to be the lesser of available evils, she becomes embroiled in local politics. Her new and unique position as a high ranking ancillary gives her the power to refuse to go along with the many ways the empire bends its own rules for the benefit of the powerful. She is also drawn to a young citizen of the station, younger sister to Lieutenant Awn, an officer much loved by Justice of Toren. Breq has modelled her idea of how to be good person on Lieutenant Awn and is following in her footsteps, refusing to allow imperial power to be used to reinforce local injustice, even though this is the path that destroyed Justice of Toren.
Togther these five novels are space opera at its best. Empire written by women who understand how empires are built and expand, and the military, economic and cultural tensions that underlie them. Stories that focus on individuals shaped by their position within and adjacent to empire who are grappling with their power to shape the direction of history and their own conflicted identity. I will eagerly read anything these women write.
- The Radchaaian empire doesn’t differentiate gender in language, and Breq finds it difficult to assess the gender of individual people. The novels use “she/her” for everyone and it’s mostly up to the reader to guess who might be biologically male, female or other. I have my opinions. Yours may differ.