A Memory Called Empire Is a Compelling Political Whodunnit Wrapped in Intriguing Sci-Fi Worldbuilding

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

An aspect of history that often goes unconsidered is the fact that the “barbarian cultures” conquered by the Roman Empire—and, later, the Byzantine Empire—certainly wouldn’t have described themselves as such—labels of barbarism, like history, being writ by the conquerers. As a historian of the Byzantines, Dr. AnnaLinden Weller—who writes science fiction under the pseudonym Arkady Martine—certainly knows this better than most, and her understanding lends depth and breadth to the compelling political mystery that drives her excellent debut novel A Memory Called Empire.

The story centers on Mahit Dzmare, a young diplomat of Lsel Station, an independent, planet-less civilization thriving on the edges of the massive, dominant, ever-expanding Teixcalaanli Empire. When a Teixcalaanli warship arrives at the station demanding a new ambassador be sent to the empire’s capital planet, Mahit is selected and somewhat hastily outfitted with an imago machine containing the stored memories and personality of her ambassadorial predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn.

The imago is an implanted device that merges the recorded personality and memories of its former host with those of its new one; the effect, in text at least, is not wholly unlike having someone in your head to converse with, and decades of experiences not your own to draw from. Imagos are the system Lsel has developed to conserve the essential knowledge and experience of its ancestors and keep their civilization alive in the hostile environment of space. Understandably, they are something of a state secret. It takes many months for a host to fully bond with a new imago, but unfortunately, the rushed demands of the Teixcalaanli don’t allow Mahit that luxury. Worse, Yskander hadn’t been back to Lsel Station in 15 years, so the imago Mahit is given is woefully out of date.

These competing factors mean that the young ambassador would be ill-prepared to face the political pressure cooker of the capital city even if she didn’t arrive there to discover that Yskander—the one that exists outside of her head—has been murdered, and a crisis of imperial succession is underway. The shock of learning of “his” death sends the Yaskander imago into malfunction, leaving Mahit yet more woefully unprepared to serve as the last line of diplomatic defense against Lsel’s forced annexation. To safeguard her people, Mahit must solve a dual mystery: who killed Yskander, and what was he doing on Teixcalaan that made him the target of a political assassination? All she has on her side is her quick mind, her expertise in Teixcalaanli culture, and the aide of a diplomatic liaison named Three Seagrass (Teixcalaanli naming conventions, which combine lucky numbers with evocative, symbolically significant nouns, are one of the novel’s many delights).

Mahit is faced with many immediate challenges that don’t sound quite like the stuff of space opera—a stack of unanswered mail being a chief example—but Arkady achieves the feat of making quiet conversations of procedure with palace officials as tense and thrilling as an action sequence. Mahit’s inquiries put her at the mercy of powerful, competing factions in the Imperial court, and she must be diligent if she wishes to avoid Yskander’s fate as she probes possible acts of sedition and betrayal that hold immense implications for both Lsel and the empire itself.

Intriguing mystery aside, the novel truly impresses in its worldbuilding, and most especially in the way Martine studies the interplay between Teixcalaanli and Lsel culture, the colonizer and the prospective colonized. Mahit, who grew up steeped in Teixcalaanli poetry and romantic epics, is proud to be a citizen of Lsel Station, but she’s also a huge Teixcalaanli fangirl. It’s easy to imagine a Bulgarian emissary traveling to Constantinople in the 11th century with a similar attitude—a combination of resentment, pride, and awe. Mahit’s love of Teixcalaanli culture is one reason she’s so good at an incredibly difficult job. But the spoils of empire also come with costs, and the novel also considers how Teixcalaanli culture consumes and subsumes, how it views all that is not of itself as barbaric. Other civilizations are so influenced by the ubiquity of anything Teixcalaanli they take on the ways of Teixcalaan long before they’re absorbed by it. Mahit’s love for her potential conquerers is a powerful illustration of the insidious  weight of empire, making domination by the Teixcalaanli seem not only inevitable—but perhaps welcomed. It’s brilliant worldbuilding.

As a stranger in a strange land, Mahit provides a compelling view of the colonizing culture. She’s painfully conscious of her youth and inexperience, but also fiercely intelligent and determined. She’s no fool, and knows the cost of misplaced trust. She’s also brave; she represents a tiny station that every Teixcalaanli assumes will be subsumed into the empire eventually, yet she never gives an inch. The other characters are just as well drawn. Mahit’s liaison Three Seagrass is an educated patrician who glides effortlessly through the politics and social orders of the empire with humor and warmth—you understand how these two become instant, if tentative, friends. As Mahit discovers that the aged, heirless emperor Six Direction has appointed no fewer than three co-emperors to succeed him, the other members of the high court come into equally clear focus, as the author’s  historical expertise pays off; she captures the mixture of awe and savagery inherent in powerful imperial systems. (The Teixcalaanli Empire is a place where poetry ciphers hide encoded messages and poisonous flowers are delicate tools of symbolic assassination.)

From Dune to Red Rising, science fiction loves to look to real history as a template for invented futures. In A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine climbs inside of history to bring it to animate, immediate life. Amid a wave of resurgent space operas, it stands apart, as pointed and dangerous as the spokes jutting from the sun-spear throne of the Teixcalaanli emperor.

A Memory Called Empire is available March 26.

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Join a Magical Bomb Squad in The City of Broken Magic

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Laura Kramer is an apprentice Sweeper in Amicae, a city that runs on magic, and the only apprentice to a cantankerous man who is the last in a long line of Sweepers.

The Sweepers are responsible for fighting the monsters that ooze out of the hollows contained in the magical amulets that power the city. Once their energy is spent, monsters eventually grow and ooze from the amulets, absorbing (and destroying) everything in their path.

In essence, The City of Broken Magic is the story of a magical bomb squad. Except, in this case, the “bombs” aren’t widely recognized as a threat, and the job consists not only of keeping Amicae safe, but also maintaining the dark secret of what a Sweeper’s job truly entails.

It’s a dangerous gig, and the need for secrecy means it comes without glory: the general public doesn’t know about the curse that created the monsters, nor that the vaunted city walls are no defense from them. Sweepers are viewed as little more than glorified exterminators. Laura is young, just out of her schooling, and without many job prospects, but she also has an affinity for magic, a driving need to do something meaningful, and, perhaps most importantly, she’s willing to put up with Head Sweeper Clae’s difficult personality. She knows that while Clae can be tactless and mean, he’s also an excellent teacher and each hard-won word of praise is honestly meant.

This debut twists fantasy conventions in notable ways. It’s set not in a medieval-style city, but a more modern one, with technology roughly equivalent to the 1930s. There are telephones, cars, trolleys, and bikes, along with somewhat modern kitchens. (Though some of the richer citizens power their tech with those magical amulets.) There is nothing like computer technology, though there is a complex water and sewer system. There are class differences: the haves live in the smaller, inner circles of the six walls that ring the city, and the have-nots reside in the outer circles—save for the military, who are stationed in the outer, sixth circle.

Laura is middle class, which means she can’t afford a car, and, though she’s bright enough to attend university, it’s a dream beyond her means. Being a Sweeper gives her a paycheck and, more importantly, a calling.

Another aspect of life in Amicae that echoes 1930s-era America is the way the city treats its women: despite the presence of a female police chief and a powerful city councilwoman, most of the society believes women should pursue no goals beyond marriage and children. Laura is fighting not only against this convention, but the prejudice engendered by her relative youth. Both prevent her from earning the respect of most anyone save Clae, and even he is grudging in his praise.

Laura is a fascinating character, full of self-doubt and insecurities, but also supremely competent and brave enough to face a horrendous death as part of her daily job. This story is largely her coming-of-age tale; as her worldview widens, she learns more about the monsters plaguing the city, and why the rest of Clae’s family of Sweepers perished or vanished, and about the other cities in this fantasy world. As Laura is the narrator, we watch the world open up through her eyes.

The bulk of the narrative follows Laura and Clae through a series of increasingly dangerous monster attacks, with Laura gaining confidence and experience along the way. My favorite sequence is an exhilarating one set aboard a train, as a monster takes over the baggage compartment just as Laura and Clae are without the usual weapons they would use to defeat it. The train, the weather, and other threats emerging from the abandoned lands beyond the train tracks (never mind the monster) work against them to heighten the tension.

Then, of course, things get worse. The final battle with the monsters is a knock-down, drag-out fight, as the creatures threaten to grow powerful enough to destroy the entire city from within. Laura must find a creative solution of her own, with the fate of the city at stake.

Author Mirah Bolender shows a knack for engaging worldbuilding, providing just enough context to her magic system and invented terms to spark the imagination, but not so much that it snags the plot, which unfolds is a series of terrifically fun, fast-paced episodes. But more than the fascinating setting, it’s Laura carries the reader along: as a protagonist, she’s no superhero. She’s imperfect, immature, jealous of her rivals, and ignorant of the dark reasons that require the Sweeper’s job to be kept secret.

She’s an unfinished character, and watching her grow into herself is one of the joys of the book. I’m looking forward to seeing where she goes from here.

The City of Broken Magic is available November 20.

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