A Memory Called Empire
Rating: 2 Stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Author: Arkady Martine
Series: Teixcalaan Book 1
“So much of who we are is what we remember and retell.”
Science Fiction, in my opinion, is a broad genre title that is really composed of two vastly different sub genres.
Science Fiction that relies heavily on science (think of Michael Crichton novels such as Prey, Timeline, Jurassic Park and Andy Weir with the Martian or Artemis)… and Space Opera dramas that are considered Science Fiction despite the fact they are more of a Space themed fantasy.
And personally, while I love Science Fiction books like Timeline and Jurassic Park… Space Operas not so much.
And unfortunately, A Memory Called Empire was NOT an exception.
I found A Memory Called Empire to have EXTREMELY convenient plot devices, very slow, and altogether be a very uninteresting read.
“Nothing touched by Empire stays clean.”
The book starts with our main character, Ambassador Mahit, arriving in the Teixcalaan Empire to serve as the new Ambassador for her home station- Lsel- and to investigate the suspicious death of her predecessor.
And while the book premise makes it seem like it will be a Space Opera Mystery- which it is to a degree- it is much more of a thorough examination of an “alien type” culture.
This book goes on, and on, and on, and on, and on about what makes the Teixcalaan citizens so vastly different from Mahit’s people.
Don’t get me wrong, this is probably the strongest aspect of the story. It is incredibly well thought out, established, and unique.
I just got sick of hearing how the Iambic Pentameter affects the poetic way the citizens communicate.
And since the author spent so many pages explaining the poetic meaning of conversation and other facets of the Teixcalaan people the plot to me REALLY suffered.
“Histories are always worse by the time they get written down.”
As I mentioned earlier, I found the plot to be very convenient.
And while that’s something I am pretty lenient on with Contemporary or Romance novels… Science Fiction I have different standards.
The story telling should convey a sense of struggle. If everything for the protagonist is conveniently easy it really devalues what I love in this genre.
And for A Memory Called Empire- the mystery was easily solved, how Mahit had to navigate an alien culture was easy, and the climactic moment of the story while interesting was (you guessed it) easy.
The book, interestingly enough, takes place entirely on a planet in the Teixcalaan system. Which I found a bit odd since most Space Operas are set on multiple planet systems and usually feature chapters containing space travel (which is only briefly mentioned in this book).
The story is primarily told in Mahit’s perspective (with brief interruptions during the Interludes and a couple flashbacks).
Mahit is a likable enough character and is easy to sympathize with but because a lot of her perspective is just an analysis on the foreign culture it was a bit dull.
Overall, this isn’t a book I would recommend. I didn’t love the convenient story telling and thought the thorough alien culture examination to be a bit too much.
Instead I’d recommend picking up Thrawn by Timothy Zahn or Illuminae by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman.
For a closer look and my spoilery thoughts about the book you can see the spoiler section below and to find what I’m currently reading and other book recommendations go here.
If you have already read A Memory Called Empire (or just like spoilers like me) read below where I will break down the book in an in depth spoiler filled review and then discuss as I would if it were a book club meeting over coffee (or tea if you are classy like me).
The SFF Review 5-Point Analysis
I’ve broken the rest of my Heaven’s River review into the following sections:
- Premise, concepts and themes
- Characters and development arcs
- Prose, dialogue, and style
- World and atmosphere
- Plot and execution
This section will go over some points I touched on in my spoiler free review but, expanded more addressing some spoilers in the story.
Premise, Concepts, and Themes
Personally I didn’t find the premise very interesting.
- Set on a world very much like Earth
- No chapters devoted to space travel and explorations of other planets.
- And a “who did it” type murder mystery.
I mean sure, the Imagos were interesting. Imparted, preserved memory, that is compatible in your own mind. Super cool. But I feel like this really was a second stage to the author’s exposition on the culture of Teixcalaan.
This book in general was just too hyperfocused on this theme of culture and how it affects your reality.
And even though I didn’t love the premise, I do have to applaud the author for how well developed Teixcalaan is. It’s obvious she spent a lot of time developing it.
And anyone who can fully flesh out a culture as complex as Teixcalaan should be applauded.
Characters and Development Arcs
Overall I felt like all the characters remained pretty static.
While Mahit became disenchanted with Teixcalaan by the end of the book I wouldn’t say she underwent any character development or change.
She remained very analytically minded. Was still uncomfortable about the not fitting in with Teixcalaan society and how she felt like she would always be an outsider.
Her relationships and how she acted with her allies stayed pretty stagnant throughout the book.
Her odd complete trust in Three Seagrass (despite the brevity of knowing each other), her reluctant trust with Nineteen Adze, and deep desire for Yskandar to be there to support her, all seemed pretty constant throughout the entirety of the novel.
Prose, Dialogue, and Style
This is what really killed the book for me. The prose and dialogue was extremely focused on showing the poetic way Teicalaan communicated.
And by the tenth mention of this I was done.
It was unique, but at some point I didn’t care how they utilized verse or Iambic Pentameter.
And to be honest, the only reason I finished this book as quickly as I did was I had to finish it for book club with my cousins.
World and Atmosphere
The author did a great job (maybe too good) immersing you into the world of Teixcalaan.
The use of poetry encryption for communication interesting (but overused), the political structure was nothing special (an emperor who is having succession issues), and holy fuck I HATED the naming system for Teixcalaan citizen.
Using a number and an object for a name was cute at first then it just got freaking confusing and annoying.
I was constantly forgetting names. I still don’t remember the name of the guy who murdered Yskandar- I just referred to him as the evil science dude.
Also, since it is a SciFi Soap Opera I would have preferred either a more “alien” type world or multiple systems visited.
Teixcalaan was a very urban city that didn’t really feel too different.
Plot and Execution
Overall, I feel like this is the aspect that really was the most lacking. The storytelling and plot was so convenient.
First Mahit is given a Liason who is extremely fascinated with “aliens” and is very trustworthy and loyal to Mahit despite the fact they had only known each other for a few hours…
For how much the government tried to make Yskandar’s death look accidental it is weird the government wouldn’t ensure they had a spy in place for her liaison that was loyal to them.
Then how quickly Twelve Azela was to bring Mahit information (literally a few hours after they met) about his groundbreaking discovery while autopsying Yskandar. Even though he had been dead for THREE MONTHS and was repeatedly examined (don’t even get me started about the massive plot hole of EVERYONE knowing he had an Imogen implanted in his brain that they didn’t want the ambassador getting her hands on but only trying to recover it 3 months after he died when she finally shows up).
Everything just seemed to miraculously happen.
And in such a short time frame. The entire novel literally took place in THREE days. THREE.
It felt way too unrealistic for a mystery to be solved, a culture to be navigated, and alliances to be made.
Questions For Further Discussion
Finished reading the book? Let’s discuss it further via the following questions.
What does the book’s title mean within the context of the story?
This one actually becomes pretty obvious after the first chapter when Yskandar (his memory stored in the Imago device), refers to Teixcalaan as “world” and but the Teixcalaan word is “empire”.
His memory is the key to unlocking the secrets of the Empire.
What was the most memorable moment from this book?
Easily when the Emperor commits suicide to guarantee the sucession to Nineteen Adze. It was a pretty awesome twist where the seeds were planted fairly early on in the book but it still surprised you.
What are your thoughts on the perspective(s) that drive the story?
I feel like I typically criticize books for having too many perspectives but this is a book that didn’t have enough.
Since Mahit was a foreigner her perspective was completely rooted in experiencing the “otherness” of the Teixcalaan. Which was very beneficial at first.
But as time went on it felt a bit redundant.
I feel like a point of view from someone like Three Seagrass would have been nice. It could focus more on the events unfolding and the challenges of circumventing sedition and fulfilling her job as Liaison.
Which theme do you feel the author was most interested in communicating to readers?
The overall theme I feel that the author is trying to communicate to readers is that differences in culture is something to celebrate and experience.
Did you find the ending satisfying? Why or why not?
Yeah. I liked the twist of the Emperor’s death and appreciated that the concluding events were briefly addressed.
Have you read or listened to Heaven’s River by Dennis E. Taylor? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
How did you experience this book? Which parts of my review do you agree with and disagree with? Sound off in the comments below.