I received this novel from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
From the very first time I saw this book mentioned in the blogosphere I knew I would love to read it, since it promised to offer many of the themes I enjoy in speculative fiction, especially the in-depth examination of the cultural and political implications of a huge empire, one where the Dune-like vibes appeared to be quite strong – which never fails to attract my attention. What I ultimately found was quite different, but in the end it did not matter much because A Memory Called Empire turned out to be a thought-provoking read.
The Teixcalaanli Empire has not extended its influence only through political or military annexation, but more subtly through the impact of its culture, one which is based on a poetry-inclined mode of expression that has become the model for what is viewed as ‘in’ – the very model of civilization. Even the systems not directly placed under the Empire’s control can fall prey to this fascination for Teixcalaanli civilization, as is the case with Lsel Station, a mining space enclave whose only political tie with the Empire is represented by its ambassador in the City, the central planet at the heart of the dominion. Mahit Dzmare, a young woman who has long been a student and enthusiast of all things Teixcalaanli, is summoned to replace the former ambassador, only to discover upon arrival that her predecessor is dead.
Stationer culture offers a unique perspective on the preservation of past experiences: they have developed a neural implant called imago machine which can store the memories of its holder and share them with a different host – the mechanical equivalent of a Trill symbiont from Star Trek or the ancestral memories received by Reverend Mothers through the ritual of the water of life in the Dune universe. Mahit carries the fifteen-years out of date imago of her predecessor, Yskander, and is still in the process of fully integrating with it given the swiftness of her assignment, but as soon as she visits Yskander’s body in the City’s morgue, the voice inside her head goes silent, either because of a shock sustained by the hosted personality or of some kind of unexpected malfunction.
By all intents and purposes, Mahit must therefore carry on her mission alone – a stranger in a strange land, no matter how much of the Teixcalaanli culture she has absorbed – and under the double pressure of having to discover what really happened to Yskander, which could very well have been murder, and the political turmoil agitating the Empire, seemingly bent toward a new campaign of expansion, this time headed in the direction of Lsel Station. Not completely alone, though: the cultural attaché she was assigned, Three Seagrass, appears inclined to help her even when that means going against the rules, and the dramatic events they are part of – including a couple of attempts on Mahit’s life – keep drawing the two young women closer, in a sort of mirror attraction for each other’s culture that slowly turns into a personal one. Still, despite finding a few allies in unexpected places, Mahit’s job looks like a mix of improvisation, deception and learning on the fly that never allows her a moment of respite, while the world all around her looks headed down a dangerous, uncertain path, one she must try to deflect at any cost, even personal safety.
A Memory Called Empire proved to be an intriguing read, as I expected, largely on the basis of the themes central to the story: one of them is the absolute belief at the root of Teixcalaanli society that it represents the best humanity can offer, the most civilized, refined example of mankind’s achievements; a belief that makes them view everyone else as a barbarian, dismissing them all too easily. There are many instances where Mahit finds herself measured by this very yardstick instead of being accepted for her accomplishments in the culture she admires so much and in its aesthetic values, not to mention her own innate abilities. This leads to another interesting concept, the meaning of self and the way it can be defined – especially when confronted with the use of imago memories and the possibility of change introduced by the coexistence of one’s experiences with someone else’s. Where the initial buildup appears somewhat slow, once the pieces are all set on the board, the action moves forward at a fast pace, with the last segment focused on a fight against time and apparently insurmountable odds, one who certainly kept me on the edge of my seat as I waited for the whole complicated scenario to unfold completely.
And yet… As captivating as this story was, as delightful some characters were (Three Seagrass being the winner in this contest, thanks to her elegantly witty repartees), I could not shake the feeling that there was something missing – which does not mean that I did not appreciate this book, only I could not be… captured by it, always remaining on the periphery, so to speak, and never truly losing myself in it. Even now, as I’m writing this, I have not managed to put my finger on the real reason for this perception of distance and the best comparison I can find is through music: I enjoy listening to Mozart, I recognize the beauty of the works he shared with the world, but to me it’s a cold beauty, devoid of the heated passion I can find in Chopin or Rachmaninov, just to quote two of my favorite composers.
This does not mean that I view A Memory Called Empire in a negative light – the rating I gave it should dispel any doubt about that: it’s only that though I recognize its brilliance, I failed to be engaged by it, probably because my heart wanted to be warmed by the story just as much as my mind had been intrigued by it…