Review: A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

Review: A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady MartineA Desolation Called Peace (Teixcalaan, #2) by Arkady Martine
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Teixcalaan #2
Pages: 496
Published by Tor Books on March 2, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass - still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire - face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Their failure will guarantee millions of deaths in an endless war. Their success might prevent Teixcalaan’s destruction - and allow the empire to continue its rapacious expansion.

Or it might create something far stranger....

My Review

I mostly listened to A Desolation Called Peace, and because I don’t have quite as much listening time as I did pre-COVID, it took about three weeks before I got impatient and started finishing chapters in the ebook and then just losing all patience completely and switching to the ebook because I just had to find out what happened.

This matters because the length of the total listen divided by the amount of time I listened each day compared to the amount of time post-listening each day, when combined with the sheer denseness of the story and the worldbuilding meant that I had a lot of time to think about the story in between listening to the story.

And I had a LOT of thoughts. Maybe not enough to fill the entirety of Teixcalaan, but more than enough to fill Lsel Station. And so we begin.

We begin not terribly long after Mahit Dzmare returned to her home, tiny, independent(ish) Lsel Station, after the tumultuous events of A Memory Called Empire. And everything that happens in A Desolation Called Peace is a result of those events.

Meaning don’t start here. Start with A Memory Called Empire, which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2020 because it was so incredibly awesome. It’s even more of an achievement when you realize that Memory was the author’s debut novel. WOW! Whatever you’ve heard about just how good it was doesn’t even come close.

For Mahit, the results of that eventful, impactful week – and it all took place in just a week – have left her back home in a state that Mahit refers to as “fuckedness” with damn good reason. She’s screwed no matter which way she turns.

The powers-that-be on her station didn’t expect her to come back home. Now they all want to use her as a wedge against the rapaciousness of Teixcalaan. Except for the Councilor for Culture, who just wants to slice her up to see what makes Dzmare and her imago, the machine that holds the memories she carries of her late predecessor Yskandr Aghavn, work. Because they weren’t supposed to.

Mahit knows full well that she won’t survive the slicing. She wasn’t meant to survive Culture’s previous efforts to sabotage her but those were at a bit of a remove. If she is unable to outmaneuver her enemy she’ll be directly under the Councilor’s knife. Literally, and certainly fatally.

And that’s where the war that Mahit traded her station’s freedom for at the end of the previous story reaches out and physically grabs Mahit out of Lsel Station in the person of Three Seagrass, her former cultural attache – and potential lover – during Mahit’s hell week on Teixcalaan.

Three Seagrass, now the Third Undersecretary in the Ministry of Information, has sent herself as a special envoy to the Teixcalaan fleet prosecuting that war. The Fleet needs a diplomat and a translator. Three Seagrass needs to get out of her office before she molders there. She needs an adventure and a challenge. Most of all, she needs Mahit Dzmare, even if she can’t quite admit it to herself.

Out of the frying pan and very much into the fire, Three Seagrass sweeps into Lsel Station, whisks Mahit away from the imminent threat of the Culture Ministry’s surgical suite, and takes her to the flagship of the Teixcalaan fleet to help her translate the speech of the enemy, an enemy who doesn’t so much speak as make mechanical sounds that seem to be designed to make humans, whether Teixcalaanlitzlim like Three Seagrass or barbarians like Mahit Dzmare, involuntarily perform the technicolor yawn past the point where they have any cookies, or anything else, left to toss.

When the aliens aren’t making all the humans ride the “vomit comet”, their ships are regurgitating acidic spit that eats its way through both Teixcalaanli ships and pilots. It’s up to Three Seagrass and Mahit to get the aliens talking instead of shooting – or spitting – before it’s too late.

All the while, political forces within the Fleet are attempting an end run around both the Fleet’s commander- and the Emperor.

No pressure – well, at least no more pressure than last time. The bloody results of which no one is likely to forget.

Escape Rating A: A Desolation Called Peace is an absolutely excellent example of science fiction as the romance of political agency. Not that plenty of Earth-shaking, or perhaps that should be Teixcalaan-shaking, events don’t happen, and not that Mahit and Three Seagrass aren’t using every scrap of agency they have so that they, the fleet and the empire – and Lsel Station – all survive more or less intact. But all of pretty much everyone’s actions in this story have their roots in the convoluted politics of the empire, both from within and from without.

As much as I fell into A Desolation Called Peace and could not stop thinking about it, I have to say that it isn’t quite as good as A Memory Called Empire. On my other hand, the first book was SO DAMN GOOD that it set a very high bar. Not quite reaching that bar means that this second book is still a great read.

I said at the top that the time I spent between immersions in this story meant that I had a lot of time for thinking about the story. And did I ever have thoughts!

So much of what makes both books so deeply layered is the way that everything revolves around context. Stories about context, about the use of context to convey “otherness” and the way that lack of context inhibits communication, for me circle back to the classic Star Trek Next Gen episode Darmok, where the Federation has to learn to communicate with people who ONLY speak in cultural context, so the entire episode is about the two captains creating a joint context where none existed before so that they can understand each other.

Teixcalaan is an old empire that has been what they call “civilized” for a long time. From their perspective, everything that is important to say or do is shrouded in layers and layers of context from history, literature and poetry. Out of that perspective arises the foundational belief that Teixcalaan, the jewel at the heart of the world, is their planet, their empire, and the only world that matters. This belief is so ingrained in their culture that the words for their planet, their empire, the world at large AND the right and proper way of doing things are all the same word.

A belief that leads to a state of constant microaggression against everyone and everything that is not Teixcalaanli. Those thoughtless and constant microaggressions form the heart of the conflict between Mahit and Three Seagrass – and also lie deep within Mahit’s own heart in conflict with itself.

Mahit, as an outsider, can see the rapaciousness of Teixcalaan as both an empire and as a culture, while at the same time she loves that culture, wants to be a part of it, and knows that she can’t truly. Not ever.

But her love for Teixcalaan, even if it is unrequited, has made her an outsider in her own home as much as she is a barbarian in Teixcalaan. Perhaps even more so. Mahit always makes me think of the Psalm that begins “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning…” Mahit’s heartbreak is that for her, both Teixcalaan AND Lsel are Jerusalem and she cannot truly return to either of them.

I could go on. In fact, I’m sorely tempted to do so because there is so much to unpack in this world – which still and above all tells a cracking good story.

One last thought before this review rivals the book for length. I began by listening, and probably listened to about 2/3rds of the story. BTW, the reader does an especially good job with Mahit’s voice and Mahit’s perspective.

But as I said, in Teixcalaan, context is everything. Listening rather than reading provided some surprising differences in context. The name of the flagship of the fleet, like the names of all of the fleet’s ships, has meaning in Teixcalaan history and literature. When the ship was first introduced, I heard her name as “Wait for the Wheel”, conveying a sense of patience before action – at least to this listener. When I cracked open the ebook and saw the name of the ship in text, I discovered it was “Weight for the Wheel”, as in the weight that pushes the wheel forward. And more in line with the purpose that both the ship and her commander have in the story.

In Teixcalaan, context is everything. And in that context, the way that A Desolation Called Peace ends allows for a third book but does not require one. If the story ends here, the ending is certainly satisfying. But if we get the chance to see what fire Mahit and Three Seagrass are thrown in – or throw themselves into – next, it would make me a very happy reader.

Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady MartineA Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan, #1) by Arkady Martine, Amy Landon
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Teixcalaan #1
Pages: 464
Published by Tor on April 4, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

This incredible opening to the trilogy recalls the best of John le Carré, Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels and Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy.

In a war of lies she seeks the truth...

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare travels to the Teixcalaanli Empire’s interstellar capital, eager to take up her new post. Yet when she arrives, she discovers her predecessor was murdered. But no one will admit his death wasn’t accidental – and she might be next. Now Mahit must navigate the capital’s enticing yet deadly halls of power, to discover dangerous truths. And while she hunts for the killer, Mahit must somehow prevent the rapacious Empire from annexing her home: a small, fiercely independent mining station.

As she sinks deeper into an alien culture that is all too seductive, Mahit engages in intrigues of her own. For she’s hiding an extraordinary technological secret, one which might destroy her station and its way of life. Or it might save them from annihilation.

A Memory Called Empire is book one in the Teixcalaan trilogy.

My Review:

There’s a great quote from Lois McMaster Bujold describing fictional genres as romances. Not in the HEA sense, but in a much broader sense. In her scenario, mysteries are romances of justice. And science fiction is the romance of political agency.

That’s certainly true in the case of A Memory Called Empire. Because this is a political story, first and foremost. But it also has elements of mystery – or at least a search for justice.

It’s also a story about sacrifice. This story begins with a sacrifice – and ends with a sacrifice – but not the same one. Although Ambassador Yskandr Aghavn gets sacrificed over and over and over – as does his successor – and they aren’t even aware of it until well into the story that he actually set in motion.

Yskandr is dead, to begin with. And he isn’t. Then he really is and then he really isn’t.

That made no sense, did it? But it does in the context of this story. Mahit Dzmare is the new Ambassador from the tiny independent mining station of Lsel to the great, magnificent and ever hungry empire of Teixcalaan. Within her brain she carries an imago, a complete memory copy, of her predecessor Yskandr Aghavn, who she has come to Teixcalaan to replace – and to get to the bottom of why Yskandr needs replacing.

His body lies dead on a mortuary slab in Teixcalaan, but his memory, all his experiences and his encapsulated self, rest inside Mahit’s brain, supposedly available for her consultation, to aid her in her job. Except that seeing his own corpse shorts out the Yskandr in her head, leaving Mahit lost and very much alone to unravel the mess that Yskandr left her – if she can.

Before she joins him on another slab.

But in attempting to retrace Yskandr’s doomed steps, she discovers that all is not well at the heart of the Empire, and that Yskandr was in the middle of nearly, but not quite, everything that has gone wrong. And not just in Teixcalaan.

And that for Mahit to have even the ghost of a chance to fix the situation, her fractured self, her Station, and even the Empire, she’ll first have to make that mess bigger and deeper, hoping to live long enough to make it all turn it more-or-less right.

By making it a whole lot wronger first.

Escape Rating A+: This was an absolute wow from beginning to end, with an absolute gut punch at that end. I listened to this one, and got so involved in the listening that I played endless games of solitaire just to have something to occupy my hands while this marvelous story spun into my ears.

There’s so much wrapped up in here, and it keeps spinning and spinning long after the final page.

Teixcalaan is a fascinating place, and Mahit Dzmare has been fascinated by it for most of her life. Teixcalaan is the name of the city, and the world, and the empire they spawned. To be a citizen of Teixcalaan is to be civilized. Everyone else, including the residents of Lsel Station like Mahit, are considered barbarians.

It’s self-centered and self-absorbed and blinkered and othering – but Teixcalaan is the jewel at the heart of the world, and Mahit longs to be a part of it.

But Mahit, an outsider, is able to be enthralled by its art, its literature and its beauty while still being aware of the sickness that lies at its center. A sickness that is embodied by but not confined to its dying Emperor.

An Emperor without a named successor, who believes that he has found a way to live forever. Yskandr promised him an imago. And died for it.

In the bare week that Mahit is on Teixcalaan, she finds herself unwillingly at the heart of the conflict, seduced by this place that she has always yearned to be, and desperate to find a way to preserve her homeworld – whether she ever returns there or not.

Because as much as Teixcalaan reaches out to simultaneously embrace her and imprison both her and her Station, forces back home are equally determined to wipe out both Mahit and anything of Yskandr’s plots and plans that remain.

As an enemy bears down on them all.

Part of what makes this story trip along so marvelously is the way that it conveys just how little time Mahit has, and just how desperate her circumstances are. In barely a week she has to figure out what killed Yskandr, why her imago has malfunctioned, what was promised to the Emperor, who is angling for the throne, who is out to get her at home, who she can rely on in Teixcalaan, who she can trust on Lsel, and keep one step ahead of anyone who is out to get her. Which is nearly everyone.

Meanwhile, in very brief moments, she gets to explore the place that she has yearned for all her life – as it falls apart. She finds love and hope and fear and a friend who will be hers for life – if she survives.

And we feel for her and with her as she runs as fast as she can to save what she can – and we wish we could be half as brave and half as daring.

At the start I said this was a story about sacrifice. There are two sacrifices in this story playing against one another – one willing and one very much not. It made me think about what made the one so uplifting, and the other so mean and base.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or of the one.” So said Spock with his dying breath in The Wrath of Khan. His sacrifice was moving and noble and heartbreaking because he willingly gave his life to save his shipmates. He walked into that chamber with eyes wide open and heart full, and it moved his shipmates, as well as many, many viewers, to tears.

So it is with the sacrifice that ends A Memory Called Empire. A man willingly walks into the fire to serve a higher purpose. And it inspires a people.

But Yskandr’s and Mahit’s sacrifice is a cheat. It is not noble, or inspiring. Because someone else decided, alone in the dark, to sacrifice them both for what that person perceived as “the Greater Good”, which turned out, of course, to be anything but.

At the last, Mahit willingly makes another sacrifice. She gives up a dream so that she can remain herself. And it hurts and we feel it, just as we have felt every break of her heart along the way.

At the end, Mahit goes home to Lsel. To uncover who and what was behind those dirty deeds in the dark that set much of this story in motion. I suspect that for Mahit the events of the second book in the series, A Desolation Called Peace will be very desolate indeed.