There is nothing hidden about a central theme of Arkady Martine’s debut novel. She states up front that it is a book about people who fall in love with the culture of the imperial hegemonic power that is oppressing them. The love of Roman or British culture is part of that power of empire to displace cultures while enriching their own. Martine duels that entrapment of cultural highs with a story in which love and seduction and the constant danger of a loss of identity, of drowning of the self among something more powerful is ever present.
Mahit Dzmare is a young ambassador sent from the small but strategically important Lsel station to the centre of the Teixcalaanli empire. Lsel is an independent space habitat with control over a resource rich region of space and with access to interstellar warp gateways. It exists in a precarious balance of cooperation with the powerful empire and imminent danger of annexed by it.
Mahit’s qualifications for the role are her own submersion into the language and literature of Teixcalaan, a society in which political intrigue is conducted by poetry and assassinations by gifts of flowers. Indeed flowers are a constant theme within Teixcalaanli society, being food, weapons, badges and often names in a way that takes the Victorian obsession with the language of flowers to giddy heights.
The only advantage Mahit (and Lsel) has is the secret neuro-technology of the imago machines. Tiny implants at the base of the brain that store the memories and personalities of predecessors, allowing the recipient to talk with and eventually blend with them. Unfortunately for Mahit, the imago of her predecessor Yskandr Aghavn is not only out of date but faulty, a matter compounded by the fact that Yskandr himself turns out to be both dead and probably murdered.
With Teixcalann amid a succession crisis and the emperor ill and not far from death, Mahit must navigate the complexities of Teixcalannli society and unravel her predecessor’s own political machinations amid terrorism and competing imperial factions.
The underlying mysteries are not deep but Mahit’s detective work (with the help of her imperial liaison Three-Seagrass) provides sufficient intrigue to keep the story flowing while we learn more about the richly painted Teixcalannli culture. Throughout there is this contrast between the heart of empire and the industrial world of Lsel station. In British terms it is coded like the contrast between the wealthy south-east and the industrial north: Lsel is a place built on principles of survival and utility, whereas the military and economic might of Teixcalann can afford a sparkling city of literature and grand architecture and romantic heroism (or the re-purposing of wars of conquest as romantic heroism).
I did really feel submerged in this entrancing empire. The siren song aspect of it and how Mahit is drawn into what is both beautiful and violent is aptly done as well as underlined with incidents such a toxic flower or poems that provoke riots. The idea of a society that is so obsessed with its own drama neatly parallels how the genre of space-opera is itself obsessed with empire and in particular the operatic scale of empire. This gives the book a very interesting element of critique of science fiction’s imperial obsession while also indulging in it.
Sadly, I read this too late to put it on my Hugo ballot but I’d have given it serious consideration if I’d read it earlier. I read the audio book version read by Amy Landon, which was nicely done and was an excellent companion for my current exercise regime amid the lockdown.