Analysis, inspiration, Reading, Reviews

Book Review: A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire is a scifi political thriller with the marvelous twist of a galactic empire based on the Aztec Empire. It’s gripping from page one, the characters are strong, smart, and driven, and it’s smart science fiction with a deep and richly realized foreign culture not seen before in fiction.

This Hugo award winning novel deserves its praise and is a recommended read even (or especially) for those who have never tried scifi before.

There was blood in her mouth now, despite Three Seagrass’s efforts to smear it away.
“Great,” said Three Seagrass. “Fantastic! Reporting your death to the Emperor would be incredibly embarrassing and possibly end my career and also I think I’d be upset…”

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Who’s going to love this book?


So you know how there’s all kinds of science fiction with galactic empires that are just a rehash of Rome, or the British Empire, or the Third Reich? So check this out, it’s a political thriller set against the backdrop of a galactic empire inspired by the Aztecs.

It’s this fish out of water story with a dash of murder mystery. Also there’s all kinds of nuanced imaginings of what it’s like to adapt to a culture other than your own.

I’ve been trying to think what to compare it to, but I don’t read many political thrillers so the best I got is that it’s like if there was a dramatization of the Cuban missile crisis that was focused solely on an ambassador from Cuba, but Cuba is a fiercely independent space station and the United States is the Aztec Empire and the Soviet Union is an alien menace.

Who’s going to hate this book?

I dunno, people who hate good books?

Okay, okay. I guess if you don’t like political thrillers or if you’d be annoyed by difficult to pronounce Aztec words scattered throughout, then this is going to be a rough read. Although there IS a pronunciation guide in the back.

This is usually the part where I tell you what’s imperfect and annoying, but I find no flaws in A Memory Called Empire. It is a political thriller, so if that’s not your thing, then this isn’t your thing. Other than that, it’s beautifully written, with engaging and relatable characters. The plot runs like a greyhound and there is the interesting twist of the galactic empire being based on the Aztecs.

I guess some people on goodreads didn’t like the author’s prose style. Others didn’t like that the most interesting scifi element is mostly background.

I suppose I should also say that the novel gets intellectual in parts. If you’re not willing look up or accept not understanding some technical poetry-analysis words, some neuroscience terms, and some linguistic terms then that might be a turn off.

Basically, people that don’t like this book seem to have a pretty narrow view of science fiction, in my opinion.

What I thought of it?

I thought it was great.

And it’s not JUST a political thriller. When the author turns her pen toward the scifi element, the cultural interactions, the twisty plot, the elegant prose, it leaps from the page as skillful and exciting as anything I’ve ever read. The ending is twisty in an obvious-in-hindsight,-but-previously-unpredictable manner.

The protagonist demonstrates her cleverness and capability even as she’s being outmatched by dangerous enemies and allies each with their own agenda.

The plot seems like it must have been carefully planned out, sewn together from many pieces, but it’s done with such skill that the seams are invisible.

Oh and it’s a debut. Sheesh, way to make some of us feel insufficient.

It was hard for me to pick a part of the book to quote. I don’t feel like any single thing is representative of the whole. The part I quoted at the start comes off as quirky and humorous, but that’s not the big picture. Other parts of the book are poetic:

When the Seventeenth Legion came through the jumpgate in bright star-snatching ships and filled up the Ebrekti sky with shapes of my home, I was at first afraid. A profound discontinuity. To know fear in the shape of one’s own face.

A Memory Called Empire

What writers can learn from it

Answer: How to raise engaging questions in the reader’s mind.

Right from the start there are motivating mysteries that come in sizes big and small.

Hell there are even questions raised in the title.

Pop quiz writers, what’s the most important word in the title: A Memory Called Empire

It’s not Empire. Every other fantasy or science fiction book has “Empire” in the title. It wasn’t original when The Empire Strikes Back did it and it isn’t original now.
So the answer is “memory” right?
“Called” is the most interesting word in the title.
This book could have been named “A Memory of Empire” That’s an adequate title that your eyes slide over at the bookstore without pausing.

But “Called”! Now I have questions. Who is calling this memory Empire and why? What do they gain by calling it that, because it implies that not everyone is calling it that?
Without “called,” the only question I have is: What happened to the empire?
Not bad, but with “called” there are so many more.

If you’re striving to be an author, study the opening of this novel. Note the waxing and waning of tension and questions. They are frequent and overlapping like a stone creating ripples in the surface of waves, but the reader never drowns. Small questions are answered. Small obstacles are overcome even as the larger waves swell.


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