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A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

(Teixcalaan #1), 2019. (cw: suicide, blood, medical content / trauma, police brutality, colonization, xenophobia; some war, gun violence)

A Memory Called Empire isn’t exactly subtle. The dedication is to “anyone who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring their own.” And in her acknowledgements, Martine writes, “to Amal al-Mohtar and Likhain, who gave me the courage to write about assimilation and language and the seduction and horror of empire.”

And Empire gets that seduction part so right. Teixcalaan is so beautiful that before you know it, you, me, we’re doing that thing, falling in love with this place and its poetry contests, shining towers, gardens, fashions and language, falling in love with empire, even as we know all of that soft power is backed by very real, very violent hard power that subsumes and consumes everything not a part of it.

I keep thinking that the first time we see the empire’s violence is when the city attacks Three Seagrass, when it attacks the “wrong” person.

I keep thinking about Lysel Station and its tiny quarters. I measured out a space 3×3×9 feet and tried lying there—“the gentle eggshell cup of its walls: tiny and inviolate and hers […] It was closed. It was safe” (ch. 5, emphasis in original).

I keep thinking about Mahit’s desire to belong, the sting when Three Seagrass participates in that informal poetry competition and Mahit realizes that she will never truly belong in the way that she wants to. Whatever membership Mahit has been granted is partial and conditional.

And I keep thinking of how none of that means her desire isn’t real, how she’s caught in the middle of all of this:

<Mahit, remember how you felt when you first read Pseudo-Thirteen River’s Expansion History, and you came to the description of the triple sunrises you can see when you’re hanging in Lsel Station’s Lagrange point, and you thought, At last, there are words for how I feel, and they aren’t even in my language—>

Yes, Mahit says. Yes, she does. That ache: longing and a violent sort of self-hatred, that only made the longing sharper.

<I felt that way.>

We felt that way.

Both of their voices, almost the same time. Electric fire in her nerves, the sweetness of being known. (ch. 16, formatting in original)

What a good book.