Book Review: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

When I began devising A Mirror of Me, I wanted a character that reacted occasionally to the world around her with a rhymed poem. I did not want her to be that poetically skilled, but authentically awkward and passionate—though brilliant at most everything else, her poetry is meant to be an aberration to all her scientific-techno genius that comes off quite clumsy at times, but endearing. I dunno if I succeeded since I’m not finished with the story yet—we’ll see. I knew she was always going to be a black trans woman—this in honor of someone very dear to me from my past that is no longer with us that will always hold a special place in my heart. At the time, I was studying the ongoing effects of colonization and racialized terror and out of this evolved a philosophically speculative story and ideas—that was, of course, after the mushrooms, and another essay altogether.

When I read A Memory Called Empire‘s summary, I knew I was gonna love this book, and I really, really did—I loved it so much, I went ahead and pre-ordered the sequel, and I rarely do that considering I’m on a limited budget. Since Ms. Martine is a marginalized author, I wanted to thank and show support for her and pre-ordering is an essential endeavor in supporting authors and their creative works.

Fascinating and engaging, this read—juxtaposed amongst all that very white medieval fiction I subjected myself to over the past several months—was an evocative and unfolding contrast and vivid reminder, not that I needed one. The world-building is incredible right down to the rich multicultural empire that elevates poetry as their standard and highest traditional form of amusement placing it at the center of their civic engagement—can we do that here? Can Schumer or Pelosi or Harris or Biden—someone; anyone—drop the occasional sociopolitical poem on the House or Senate floor, or in the White House? This reminded me of the scene in The West Wing where Toby talks1 about how a Supreme Court Chief Justice delivered a dissenting opinion in trochaic tetrameter. Yes, let’s do that, please, though perhaps this is why they don’t, eh: “Poetry is for the desperate, and for people who have grown old enough to have something to say.”

The characters are rich and cheeky and this made me want to join their merry little crew to fight injustice among other things [wink—flirty grin]. A mystery lies near the center of this narrative with an interesting resolution that makes me wanna stick around for future installments to see how that relationship evolves. The third act features four surprises that I did not expect and am still thinking about. “Grown old enough, or lived through enough incomprehensible experiences. Perhaps she was old enough for poetry now: she had three lives inside her, and a death.”

Ms. Martine’s book philosophically inspired me and I love when books do that. For me personally, as a writer, the highest form of flattery to one’s work is someone telling you that the work inspired them to think and create their own, in essence, searching for their own questions to ask hoping that through their words they’ll find the answers they seek—or even more questions, which is always the better of the two. It’s so fun! Difficult, but fun. Ms. Martine makes it seem effortless and aesthetically gorgeous to boot as the prose is beautifully and skillfully written and contextualized.

She occasionally drops sociopolitical leads that remind you of the ever-present and ongoing concerns, like: “A woman using her own uterus rather than an artificial womb to grow a child was a luxury of resources the Station simply didn’t have—women died doing that, or destroyed their metabolisms or their pelvic floors, and women were people who could be doing work. Mahit had been given her contraceptive implant at the age of nine. When she’d learned that Teixcalaanlitzlim sometimes bore their own children inside themselves, she’d thought of it the way she thought about the water spilling out of one of those flower bowls in the restaurant in Plaza Central Nine. To have that much to easily spend felt both offensive and compelling.” Wow. Considering the current financial and sociopolitical dilemma facing and surrounding younger child-bearers nowadays, that seems a rather stark prolific and prominent state of mind given the outlook of things for the foreseeable future, and it is a pattern that is all too recognizable in speculative and science fiction lately—perhaps one should make those in power aware? /rhetorical sarcasm. I imagine we’ll get more and more essays like We Expect 300,000 Fewer Births Than Usual This Year if things continue as they are, regardless of a pandemic.

Then this: “Mahit thought of the fundamental assumption of Teixcalaanli society: that collapse between world and Empire and City—and how if there was such a collapse, importation was uneasy, foreign was dangerous, even if that importation was just from a distant part of the Empire. And barbarians like herself oughtn’t be able to conceptualize why a poem about the perilous corruption of some other planet’s flowers might be, in fact, designed to make a Teixcalaanlitzlim nervous.”

Followed inevitably by this: “But if a system was no longer foreign—if the world was large enough, the Empire large enough, to encompass and subsume all that was barbaric about that world—well, it wasn’t barbaric anymore. It wasn’t threatening anymore. If Nine Maize was pointing out the threat of importation, he was calling for—or at least suggesting—that Teixcalaan act to normalize that threat. To civilize it. And Teixcalaan had always civilized—had always made something Teixcalaanli—with force. Force, like a war.”

Also, this: “…ideological unity was flexible. Mutable, under stress.” Woo. She shades like those lovely long and light silk gauzy curtains that sit in front of an open door and all that unfiltered sunshine, driven by breeze to float serendipitously amongst the room. Intimating at truths that were always there, whether harsh or soft, she gives them aesthetical power and interjects it smoothly into a fascinating science fiction world we can relate—at least some of us; the subjective interpretation of such entirely your own: “Who is we?”

I really wanna get the audiobook so I can hear the language and poetry spoken aloud—to hear the names and words so artistically combined fall expertly off someone’s tongue and incorporated into the ether for us to savor and notice and observe, but most importantly, to listen and comprehend. “Released, my tongue will speak visions. Released, I am a spear in the hands of the sun.”

1 – That blog I linked to has philosophically interesting and provocative posts. I fell down a rabbit hole and the time ran away from me perusing through a few of them. Considering they are being authored by an Australian progressive Christian pastor, it is worth a look-see—if so inclined.

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