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Daily Helping for May 23rd, 2021 – A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine

A close up photo of the novel A Memory Called Empire

It has been a very long time since I’ve read a straight up science fiction book. So I decided to dive back in with last year’s Hugo award winner for Best Novel, A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. And it was a fascinating reading experience. Mostly because over the past couple of years, I’ve become more and more aware of the types of stories that I’m drawn to, and those that I’m not. What was so fascinating about A Memory Called Empire was that it somehow managed to be both.

In a nutshell, this book is about Mahit Dzmare, an Ambassador from the independent Lsel station who travels to the capital of the Teixcalaanli Empire to replace her recently deceased predecessor. Once there, she discovers that her predecessor’s death was not an accident. Because of course it wasn’t. And of course there’s a conspiracy that she immediately becomes entangled in. And of course this conspiracy goes right to the top and has the potential to topple an empire. Because that’s the way these books tend to go. And that’s not a bad thing. This book was a page turner, right up until the end, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the journey.

That being said, it wasn’t the conspiracies and political maneuvering and plot twists that kept me engaged. On the contrary, more and more, I’m finding that that sort of storytelling is less and less interesting to me. I don’t want characters to constantly be in peril. I don’t want a plot twist in every chapter or episode of television. Frankly, those kinds of stories are exhausting to me. I’ve been slowly coming to this realization over the past couple of years, and more and more, it’s affecting the types of stories that I seek out.

So why was this book such a page turner for me? Well, as I mentioned above, I’m also discovering more and more what types of stories do interest me. And right at the top of that list is character studies. I love getting to know characters on a deeper level, and it almost doesn’t matter if not much happens to them. I just want to get to know who they are. One of my favourite books of late is Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, and I always describe it the same way. There’s not much in the way of a traditional plot, but it is a fascinating deep dive into 12 characters who are all loosely connected. And I love it.

This is also what I loved about A Memory Called Empire. Mahit Dzmare arrives in the capital with a secret piece of technology embedded in her brain. It’s called an imago-machine, and it contains a copy of her predecessor’s consciousness. Meaning she can speak to him, ask him questions, and use the entirety of his knowledge base to help guide her through an unfamiliar country, culture, and customs. It’s a fascinating exercise in world building that has a lot of interesting things to say about how we define ourselves within the greater context of sociological culture. Let’s just say I loved every bit of it.

And just in case you’re wondering, yes, I am well aware that I’m in the minority here. I know that most people prefer an action packed, fast paced plot, with plenty of twists and turns. And A Memory Called Empire has all of that. It’s also incredibly well written, so if you like science fiction, I highly recommend it. But for me, I’ve come to realize that instead of world-ending stakes and twisty plots, I’d much rather just sit with a character and discover how they think about the world around them. Most people might find that boring, but I find it fascinating. Hopefully I can find more of those books going forward.

Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!