On My Bookshelf: A Memory Called Empire

One of the best things about good science fiction is when an author takes us places we’ve never been in ways we’ve never gone.

The first of those is easy to do. No human has yet set foot on Mars or an asteroid or some faraway extrasolar planet. From there, we can explore astronomy, biology, politics, psychology, or any interesting new thing that hits the characters.

Last year, I was impressed with the novel way Ann Leckie constructed her well-regarded trilogy (first book here). And in the new year, while Ms Martine’s A Memory Called Empire isn’t quite as groundbreaking, it is a charming and enjoyable read.

Charming? Is that a new adjective for science fiction? My first bone to pick is with the publisher, Tor. Maybe they think men won’t pick up a book written by a woman that’s largely sociology, psychology, political, and character-driven. Two of the cover’s favorable blurbs mention “space opera.” Which this novel definitely isn’t. Sure, in the background, casting shadows on an imperial planet, are military ships, star gates, and deep space habitats. The author doesn’t explore these with much depth. Most of our attention is with an ambassador in a fish-out-of-water situation on a galactic empire’s capital city. With her we navigate palace intrigue, rebellion, a murder mystery, and a secret technology vital to protagonist, allies, and foes.

The great strengths of this book are in its characterization and plotting. Most of the people are three-dimensional, and we struggle with the main figure, Ambassador Mahit Dzmare, as she unravels a riddle of her murdered predecessor, possible sabotage of her mission, and the increasing unrest within an empire with nearly no limits to its power.

The plot runs slow, but steady for 438 pages. Things proceed with danger and intrigue, but also logic. There are surprising reveals along the way, like any good mystery story. The only loose ends are left for sequels, which will move to other characters, as my internet research has told me. I will look forward to reading those books. Even if they involve more spaceships and shooting.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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