Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.
Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.
On rare occasions—and when you’re very lucky—you stumble upon a book that awakens a dimension of you that you had not known existed. A story that feels like an unlocking, or a becoming, like something inside you is shifting into a new and strange place—piecing itself together or breaking apart or both. It’s a wonderful feeling: to find a story that you can carry within you so powerfully it sears through your bones, and expands in your chest, and winds itself so tightly around your being it becomes an inextricable part of you.
So what’s this this book about?
When Mahit arrives as ambassador to the imperial City of Teixcalaan with clear-cut instructions from her Station—investigate the sudden death of the former ambassador Yskandr Aghavn, advocate for Lsel citizens, and stop the Empire from falling upon the independent Lsel Station like a wolf—she is hideously lonely and unsteady as shadows in a storm.
Mahit ought to feel pleased or honored, but what she feels instead is the voluptuous silence of her imago: a piece of technology installed in Mahit’s mind and suffused with her predecessor’s memory. Without her predecessor’s voice in her head—teaching her how to shoulder expectations, stomach opinions, navigate decorum, and make conversation—Mahit feels as if she’d been turned around blindfolded in a room.
Luckily Mahit is assigned Three Seagrass, a cultural liaison “with a sense of humor and vainglorious personal ambition”, and at last it seems that one thing at least is securely moored in this mission that slips through Mahit’s fingers like sand. But Mahit knows better than to trust anyone sent by Teixcalaan, always watching for the telltale glint of some hidden knife seeking flesh, even if it’s someone Mahit is developing an unfortunate crush on.
For there’s a menace slowly creeping in like a fog: the imperial City is on the brink of something, teetering on the edge of an unknown so vast Mahit couldn’t see its edges. And there is a rope inside Mahit’s chest, a dull dread pulling her toward unveiled mysteries and perilous secrets. And Mahit counts on following it.
Released, I am a spear in the hands of the sun.
“A Memory Called Empire” caught my attention when I first read the synopsis, snagging it the way a nail snags a sweater—and it didn’t let go from the moment I turned the first page. This is one of those novels that you can consume as hungrily and relentlessly as you want, devour and devour and never run out of things to eat. A novel that you can sink into as soundlessly as a stone falling into water and never reach the deep end.
With every page, the extraordinarily intricate world of the book only manifolds, unfurling like concealed pages of a map, and uncovering a future full of terrible, unguessable magic. The author doesn’t just invite you inside, she makes you want to stop and linger, to wander and meditate, to hold the characters’ hands while you eavesdrop on the layered complications of their hearts. The plot—swift but deceptively complex—never lags. There’s a restless energy winding around the story like rope, keeping my eyes fastened on the page, as the hours ran together like a dream. It felt almost like a trance, as though I was lost inside the story, and my body was just holding my place in the real world.
There’s so much that I relish about this story I hardly know where to begin: how it practically levitates on the velocity of the author’s voracious imagination and captivating voice; how it vibrates with originality, queerness, and ingenuity; how it fearlessly defies its ostensible categorization, spiraling outward from space opera through cyberpunk fiction and political thriller to land somewhere in the realm of the future.
But it’s the sheer thematic gravity of the novel that still knocks around in me, weeks later.
The story revolves around and around the term “memory,” creating rills of current that worry their meanings throughout the novel. It becomes something to be honored and maintained, something to inherit, something to be trapped in, something that can be taken and devoured, or torn away like a limb and snuffed out. Memory as currency that is all too easy to spend. Memory as a tool, a weapon—whether it’s preserved in incredibly advanced technological devices, or simply worked in luxurious poetry—one that can be wielded by both the powerful and the forgotten powerless.
Cultural imperialism lies at the heart of the novel, and it becomes this dwarfing, obliterating, all-consuming thing that settles down next to the reader, baring its teeth. It spoke to me twofold: as an Indigenous North African who’s well assimilated into Arab culture, and as an immigrant currently living in Europe. And to be honest, the experience of reading this book too often felt like lifting the bandage on a wound that had never quite healed—and that likely never would.
The novel forced me back into the agony of inheriting a culture that’s already fraying at the edges, slowly wisping away, never substantial enough to grasp, and the mortification of falling in love with a culture that’s devouring your own, of losing yourself in the marvel of it, savoring it like a sip of good wine, even as the grapes turn sour in your mouth. “The feeling of what you love makes you despicable.” A naked, razor-sharp shame that attaches itself ravenously to you when you love something that is poison, and you know that it is poison, but relish the taste of it anyway.
Nothing empire touches remains itself.
Teixcalaan is like a shining comet, dragging Mahit’s focus like meteors in their wake. Mahit has studied every inch of Teixcalaan literature, spent her youth chasing Teixcalaan tales like butterflies, swallowing Teixcalaan culture the way a drowning sailor swallows seawater. Empire slipped past Mahit’s armor like a needle through wool, and there was a mystic joy in the collision—in knowing that you’re being seduced and thoroughly succumbing to the seduction. But Empire was hellbent on setting its jaws upon Mahit’s home, and Mahit was hellbent on stopping it.
But at the bottom of everything, like dregs in a cup, what Mahit really wanted was to belong.
Through Mahit’s eyes, the novel moves us through the stark and painful internal realities of being a non-citizen, and longing to be acknowledged as a citizen. Mahit understood how much Teixcalaan demanded and how very little it gave back, just as acutely as she understood that there is danger in not belonging.
I’ve been an immigrant for three years, and it felt extraordinarily cathartic to find a story in which the narrator is stuck out here with me. Like Mahit, I’ve never been able to chase away the feeling that while this new world I’ve set up house in embraces me with one arm, it also pushes me away with the other. Because, and to borrow some of Mahit’s words, I would never fully belong and I would never stop knowing it. Like Mahit, I’ve never forgotten the reasons why I left. I am a different person in every sense, and as far away from the me who left three years ago as a distant planet. I miss home, and I don’t miss it, and those two realities still chase circles inside my head. But there’s one growing certainty wedging itself inside me every day: once you leave, you can’t really go home again. Not all the way, anyway. No matter how hard you try. Once you leave, something is lost, and I don’t think you ever find it again.
Trying to see who we are. What is left of us. Who we might be now.
I’ve never read anything quite like “A Memory Called Empire”, and I doubt I would soon forget it. With this book, Arkady Martine has made of me an eternal reader of her stories. I am waiting, like an ember for air, for the sequel.