A Memory Called Empire is a political sci-fi novel with a main f/f romance, the best court intrigue I’ve read in months if not ever, and plot twists I didn’t see coming.
It’s set in a space empire in which straight isn’t the default, most of the cast is queer, and the worldbuilding is complex but never confusing – everything I’ve ever wanted.
And yet it’s so much more. I knew this would be an intense read for me right from the dedication, because this book is dedicated to anyone who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring their own.
Maybe devouring isn’t the right word, but how do you call it when a country often tries compare itself to America according to American standards, not realizing that it’s a game it will always lose? Or how do you call the constant attempts at emulation because “American culture” is mistaken by some as “modernity”, or even only the fact that the YA section in a bookstore is mostly translated American books? (When your neighbor is more powerful than you are, it gets to decide what is modern, what is moral, and even what’s good literature, but it really shouldn’t be that way.)
And this book gets it. This book also gets that the misguided “patriots” who try to restore the “purity” of the culture and avoid cross-culture “contamination” are dangerous (…and often advocating for some version of fascism).
This book gets why someone might love another country’s literature so much that they speak another language better than their own, that they think and dream in it. This book gets what it means to never lose the lingering feeling that you’re reading stories that never quite fit you, because they were never meant for you in the first place – you are, at best, an afterthought.
I do realize that I’m talking about a book written in English, published in America. But for once, and this might be the first time, I haven’t felt like a book was explicitly not written for me.
I could understand Mahit, which means that some parts of this were hard to read. When she feels both insulted and complimented when someone says that she speaks/acts exactly like someone of another culture, or that specific kind of… angry xenophilia we share, or that part in which she specifically says that she finally found a word to describe how she felt and it wasn’t even in her language.
But let’s talk about the rest of the book too, not only about Mahit’s experience with navigating two cultures. A Memory Called Empire has some of the best worldbuilding I’ve seen lately. Don’t get intimidated by words like Teixcalaanlitzlim or ezuazuacat – the court, the intrigue and the surprising plot twists are worth it. (I thought it was worth it just for the pretty descriptions, but not everyone shares my priorities.)
I loved Mahit Dzmare. She’s the new ambassador in Teixcalaan, and she gets thrown in a place where she has no allies, after her predecessor got murdered. She’s smart and manages to do so much from almost nothing – if you want to read about a complex female character who doesn’t use a weapon in the whole book but changes the outcome of an empire’s messy succession problem anyway, try this. And her slow-burn romance with cultural liaison Three Seagrass? I love both of them so much, and Seagrass as a character kept surprising me.
The side characters were interesting to read as well – Nineteen Adze was… fascinating to say the least, Yskandr Aghavn was a bisexual disaster and the dialogues between what was left of him and Mahit were my favorite parts of the book, and Twelve Azalea’s banter with Seagrass was very entertaining to read too.
Click here to read a small spoiler-y paragraph
Also, the whole Nine Direction-Yskandr-Nineteern Adze polyamorous triangle was one of my favorite things in here and I’m in so much pain seeing how it ended. I would read a book just about that.
When I say that I love a sci-fi book’s worldbuilding, it means that it did something interesting with the technology: this did – it’s the first book I’ve ever read that mentioned that AIs can carry the human creator’s biases.
But the most interesting sci-fi technology is without a doubt the imago-machine. In Mahit’s culture, the memories of the dead are installed on compatible people, and Mahit has an out-of-date version of the previous ambassador in her head.
I loved how this book talked about personhood, memory and identity because of the imago, and how the concept of “me” had different meanings in those situations.
A Memory Called Empire is a book that pays a lot of attention to language, how cultures shape it, and how they shape literature in return. It’s really interesting to read, and the level of lit-related detail – paired with the excerpts you get at the beginning of every chapter – made these fictional cultures feel more real. Those details were also part of this book’s odd sense of humor (plagiarism jokes! Inappropriate citations! Even more inappropriate double entendres!)
The only thing I didn’t like was the binarism. This book is set in a world where homophobia doesn’t exist and polyamory is normal, but… there are no explicitly non-binary characters, and some phrasings used in this ARC copy were binarist (“men and women” instead of “people”). An otherwise-queer-accepting society being binarist wouldn’t be flawed worldbuilding in itself, were there any reason for it to be that way. Was it intentional? If so, why? I feel like I’m nitpicking but I would have wanted to know more about this.
My rating: ★★★★★