A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This novel won the Hugo, and it involved space opera and poetry, so I thought I’d like it. I did.
The novels starts a little slow – though not boring – and builds up to a fine climax. The main character arrives as an ambassador at a planet she admires and has studied in depth, and bit by bit she discovers how little she actually understands. She knows the Teixcalaanli Empire has aspects that are problematic, but in fact, something very wrong and dangerous is going on, and it involves her, and she has to find out exactly what it is.
She’s also an outsider and, as an ambassador, she must act within a defined role. She’s alone and soon becomes even more alone, intensely aware of all her anxieties and doubts.
The plot is occasionally hamstrung by her status. The story is compelling in its complexity, but rarely heart-stopping in its action. The “opera” of this space opera is more like ominous background music. She goes to a lot of meetings and talks and listens a lot. That’s what diplomats do: they interface and cope with bureaucracies. But soon her life is on the line, then the stakes get even higher. Can diplomacy save the day? Because that’s all she has.
It’s tricky to tell a story like this where the agency of the main character faces so many external limits. That’s the real story: how to take control of a situation you cannot manage. At every moment, it’s believable. Her predicaments and their resolutions are satisfying.
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