By now you’ll know that I’m participating in the #ReadersWithoutBorders June reading challenge. I’m spreading my posts out a bit but I’m now reading the final best novel finalist before I dive into the 6 best novella finalists! Its been a varied experience so far, perhaps because I’ve had quite high expectations for all of the novels.
Despite my rating, A Memory Called Empire isn’t a bad book. Martine can certainly write. But having been at the top of my TBR for some time, my experience of this read was definitely flavoured with disappointment that it didn’t turn out to be what I had hoped. Given the almost entirely positive reception the book has otherwise received, feel free to read my review with a pinch of salt!
Mahit is a stationer, born and bred on Lsel. Stationer space has so far avoided occupation by the Teixcalaanli empire, and clings to its independence by mining nearby asteroids and trading metals. When Teixcalaan requests a new Lsel Ambassador without providing any explanation, Mahit finds herself thrust into the role and travelling to the centre of the empire. However when her imago – an implantable recording of her predecessor’s mind – malfunctions, Mahit finds herself navigating Teixcalaanli politics alone.
This book has a LOT in common with Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy – an intergalactic empire at the height of its influence, an emperor seeking immortality, a new and unknowable alien threat, government ambassadors, annexation gone wrong, questionably inhuman soldiers, and a protagonist recently cut off from their technological greater ‘self’. The last is a shame, as the imago technology is the most interesting thing about the book (although also done before, notably by Yoon Ha Lee), but is almost immediately cut out of the story.
Even minor details are familiar from Imperial Radch – the concept of civilised vs. uncivilised humanity, citizens undertaking aptitude testing to determine their occupation, the political and social significance of poetry, wearable political motifs and a penchant for formal tea services. Martine didn’t have the Radchaai social aversion to having their hands exposed in public, instead Teixcalaanli don’t show their teeth but smile with their eyes.
I don’t know if I’ve incorrectly assumed that this combination of elements originated with Leckie or if it’s some kind of sub-genre of sci-fi, but the result is that nothing felt quite new for me.
Originality aside, Martine is a good writer. Unfortunately, her ornate prose tends to oversell the content of the story. What is intended to be a thrilling political mystery full of conspiracy and espionage is a fairly straight-forward story with relatively few twists or surprises, the main element of suspense being provided by Mahit’s untimely handicap. Conversations that are depicted as a thrilling standoff of intellect and cunning are mostly rather pedestrian.
If I was less frustrated by this, I would perhaps admire the choice of Mahit as a protagonist; despite all of her competency testing she behaves like someone who walked off the street and into the book, and does the same things that I probably would have done in the same situation… I guess like, check my emails and arrange a few meetings with the first important people I hear about, then… see what happens? A bold choice of character, but for me not necessarily an exciting one.
In fairness, the last 20-30% of the book did hold my interest, and depth was added to both the characters and the plot. I had a similar experience with The City in the Middle of the Night, however in this case it didn’t quite redeem the book for me. Having said that, I am curious to see what Martine will do with the second book in the duology, and if she expands on her ideas.
Regarding representation, Mahit’s predecessor was bisexual, which adds depth and emotion in the later chapters and was one of the plot points that piqued my interest. Mahit herself could be anything between lesbian, ace or pansexual. It isn’t really explored in any detail, which makes me wonder why it was mentioned at all, unless to make a point that sexuality and labels shouldn’t matter in the greater narrative.
I had to refer back to my own rating guidelines as this one felt a bit harsh, but at the end of the day I don’t think I would recommend this book to someone unless they’ve already read Ann Leckie and they’re craving something similar.
I do appreciate that this is a debut novel and Martine’s writing style is commendable. I will be keeping an eye out for reviews of her sequel, as I think her voice became stronger towards the end of the book.