Plotting - 9/10
Worldbuilding - 10/10
Overall - 9.5/10
User Review( votes)
A Memory Called Empire is a tale of space opera courtly intrigue wrapped in an utterly fascinating world.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
A Memory Called Empire is a space opera that incorporates court politics more often found in fantasy novels. Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the interstellar Teixcalaani Empire to discover that someone has murdered her predecessor. Suddenly, she has no help and no one she can trust in a court that’s now proven dangerous. Now, she must figure out where the danger in court is while trying to settle her own political position.
Considering that the plot is full of intrigue and secrets, I want to discuss a worldbuilding facet that fascinates me. We know that language is an essential part of our daily lives. However, in A Memory Called Empire, Martine shows the reader how the Teixcalaani language is inextricably tied up with the Teixcalaani Empire.
Language and Imperialism in A Memory Called Empire
A significant part of the reason that Mahit wanted to apply to be an ambassador to Teixcalaan is her fascination with their culture. In terms of soft power, the Teixcalaani Empire is a lot like the modern United States. Even if you’re not trying to absorb the culture, it’s everywhere. This is a feature of imperialism; if you don’t know anything about it, people are going to think less of you. Although people titter in the real world when outsiders don’t know all aspects of the assumed lingua franca, this is much worse in Teixcalaan, due to the culture’s emphasis on language.
One really interesting focus on the Teixcalaani Empire’s society was the emphasis on language. This is even built into the linguistics of Teixcalaani. Mahit notes early on that the word indicating the capital city is also a word meaning “the world”; it indicates how little Teixcalaan thinks of anywhere else. This is imperialism again, assuming that one nation is the center of the universe (with power enforcing the notion). This is a self-centered notion. But the Teixcalaani don’t see it as insular, since they see themselves as the objective center.
Another aspect of how language is important to the Teixcalaani culture is through poetry. At a state dinner, a few officials begin holding a traditional poetry oration contest. Three Seagrass (the traditional Teixcalaani names are also a great detail) notes that one of the poems seems to have a political angle. Abstracting political dissent through literary analysis greatly interests Mahit. It’s also important to note that you have to be really fluent in a language to be able to hide hidden meanings in poetry like that. If you’re without wit in the Teixcalaani court, you’re probably not going to be there very long. Therefore, if you want to feel like you’re a part of Teixcalaan, any less than that level of fluency feels like a failure.
Conclusion: A Memory Called Empire is a Feat of Worldbuilding
A Memory Called Empire encases both a beautifully built world and thrilling political intrigue. The reader willingly follows along with Mahit as she discovers that something is rotten in the empire of Teixcalaan. There are many layers to this finalist, and it has a lot of re-read potential. I hope that more people are finding this book from its spot on award lists.
Hugo Review Series
This review is part of our Hugo Review series, where we review Hugo finalists we missed in the last year. Here are our reviews for the other Hugo finalists for Best Novel:
- The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
- The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
- The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley
- Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
- Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Members of this year’s WorldCon vote on the Hugo Awards. Although WorldCon should have been in New Zealand this year, it is now going to be virtual. You can pay for membership here.