Review: Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

I admit my reading is a bit peripatetic. So often do I clamber wearily through my weekly schedule without the energy to do anything more than open up, say, a Vorkosigan omnibus to some random place so I can have something to read while eating dinner, that it takes a critical mass of recs and/or an opportunity of mood to pick up something new.

This weekend, however, I haled my neurodivergent ass over to B&N and picked up A Memory Called Empire to read while consuming egg drop soup and dumplings. I read four chapters and let the remains of my dinner get cold — and the tea, too. Then I took the book home and read the rest of it in one gulp.

It’s not a short book by any means, but it does read very quickly, and the pacing is snappy without being frenetic or irrational. This is my second court-intrigue novel in a month — and strangely, like The Goblin Emperor, it involves a murder mystery, where the mystery is not really about who committed the murder as it is about why the murder was committed and the serious implications of the aftermath for the succession of the throne. Are a lot of court-intrigue stories like this? I’m not sure I’ve read enough of them to discern a pattern.

In any event, this is a particularly ambitious story. Apart from the court intrigue plot, Martine introduces us to a highly mannered and poetry-inflected world via a foreigner, the POV character who is the new ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire’s central planet. Mahit was chosen as the hasty replacement of her murdered predecessor in no small part because she had fallen in love with the empire’s literary tradition and similarly struggles with the simultaneous insult of being branded a barbarian and desire not to be one. We find out all about the meaningful details of dress and mode of language and apparent alliance through her eyes. To add to this bewildering sensory onslaught, each chapter is headed by epigraphs from Teixcalaanli poetry, or history, or correspondence offstage and out of the POV character’s ken. It’s a lot to take in, and without the snappy pace of the plot itself, it might have been too much.

The characters, too, help carry the burden of introducing such a vivid and complex world. They are nearly all of them memorable individuals that have arcs of growth and nuance as the story unfolds. But if I want to be honest, the parts I want to reread — the parts I have gone back to reread, several times — are the parts where Mahit interacts with her imago memory implant, a technology of her home station whereby the experience and skill of previous generations is grafted onto the new people in their roles, with great psychological care taken to integrate them with their predecessors’ personalities. Not to spoil a major plot point, but Mahit’s relationship with Yskandr, the former ambassador whose murder she is investigating — hampered by sabotage early on in the conflict between her home and the Empire — became the heart of the story for me. I found the concept fascinating and exceptionally well-drawn, and I particularly loved the theme behind the idea, of being seen and understood and not alone, with all the intimacy and peril that implies. That, too, chimes somewhat with a theme in The Goblin Emperor, though the implications are not at all drawn out in the same way.

I gave this a solid four stars on Goodreads and would rec it unreservedly for people who like the kinds of things I’ve described. It was hard for me to not read it like a writer, which I’m not sure is a fault at all, but it did put a small remove in my own intimacy with the story, and in any case it was so well written that it didn’t suffer by that undercurrent of examination. Definitely worth the purchase.

Review: Jodi Taylor, Just One Damned Thing After Another

[crossposted from Goodreads; slightly spoilery, caveat lector]

Just what it says on the tin.

A book club choice that I’m finally catching up on. Rather wish I’d read it last winter when it was being discussed — there were fun things to talk about in this one. Also wish I could give it 3 1/2 stars, as I definitely liked it better than The Japanese Lover and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? which were also book club reads.

In fact, I almost gave it four stars, but this book just fell enough short of the admiration I have for Ann Leckie’s recent books, the Rivers of London series, and a plurality of Terry Pratchett’s books — though if you like those, you should certainly try this.

The first-person protagonist is a firecracker (or maybe something slightly less benign), with a snarky voice and the most towering capacity for mayhem this side of Miles Vorkosigan. The story was compelling enough to finish in one sitting (the plot, being more or less solid events from start to finish, definitely lends itself to this), but that very sense of undifferentiated urgency left me without much of a grasp on the story, much like when I was a kid in gym shaking a parachute, losing hold of my edge, and fumbling to catch it again. I can’t tell if this is a feature or a bug.

[Mild spoiler] Meanwhile, the characters our heroine makes enemies with turn out to be the bad guys — what are the odds? This sort of thing really annoys me in principle, but in practice this book was saved by the fact that Jodi Taylor is very good at spotting difficulties and lampshading them. (Nothing wrong with a little lampshading! I’ve been known to use the technique myself.) Max, who apparently comes from an unspeakably abusive childhood, second-guesses herself when working out who the villians are, and even gives them more credit than she should precisely because she doesn’t like them. Very believably, she does not trust her own trust meter, with widely mixed results.

Similarly, most of the characters are types, which is handy in a book as full of “damned things” as this is — but if the story gets round to them, they act interestingly within their types, though in some cases less believably than Max.

The emotional throughline of the story was very compelling, and would have been more so if there’d been more dynamic range, but there was never time for anything like that, nor even to grieve for the characters who got killed, many of them gone just as one gets to know them.

These things annoyed me a good deal, which, as I said, is ultimately a point in this book’s favor because it was the opposite of “meh” — so I don’t wish I had my Sunday afternoon back. And isn’t that what we ask of a book first and foremost?