Arkady Martine’s debut novel A Memory Called Empire received multiple award nominations and won the Hugo for best novel. The first in a series, it was followed in March of 2021 with this novel, with more of the conflicts and intrigue involving the future Teixcalaanli Empire, the “barbarian” human settlements in its environs, and some very interesting extraterrestrials.
The more you explore your reality, internal and external….
Title: A Desolation Called Peace
Author: Arkady Martine
Characters still reeling from the events in the previous novel attempt to assist the Teixcalannli fleet with an alien armada with whom communication seems impossible. The eleven-year-old future emperor, meanwhile, begins to wrestle with issues well beyond his years or understanding.
Martine continues to use familiar tropes in unfamiliar ways. Her aliens combine elements that we’ve seen before, but I cannot think of anyone who takes the implications of those elements as far as she manages. What might seem like comparatively mundane extra-terrestrials gradually become something else entirely, and issues of communication and culture remain central to the novel.
Like its predecessor, this novel develops slowly, with considerable consideration of how the cultures think and interact. I found the first half developed a little too slowly this time around. The story picks up in close to the halfway point and the final third is excellent. I remain uncertain of how much of the first third was actually necessary to understand the remainder.
Imagery: 4/6 I found this novel as baffling as her first for containing some excellent description and immersion into cultural and individual thought-processes, separated by long stretches where I could not really tell you what anything looks like. When she’s on, she’s really on.
Story: 5/6 I’m going to (mostly) repeat what I wrote in my review of A Memory Called Empire, because these things remain true, even more so here: The story kept me engaged, though it moves slowly at first. Martine, when she’s not writing SF, is AnnaLinden Weller, an historian with an interest in the Byzantine Empire, and a city planner. She brings to bear an understanding of history and culture often lacking in SF.
Aspects of this book are excellent, but do not expect a quick read.
Characterization: 5/6 Some characters work very well, though her approach to characterization and difference can present a challenge, one she obviously intends.
Emotional Response: 5/6
Editing: 4/6 Her writing and style remain strong, but this book feels like more time should have been taken refining the story and other elements.
Overall: 5/6 I liked this novel– particularly its final third– but for me it fell short of the expectations created by its predecessor.
In total, A Desolation Called Peace receives 32/42
A Minor Point (which gets raised often)
The Teixcalaanli naming conventions exist, at least in part, to remind us that we’re in a fundamentally different cultural context than the one we know. Martine continually challenges a certain ethnocentrism, often subtle, that affects much SF. I get that. I appreciate that. A friend of mine, who liked the books more than I did, said he would have read them twice as fast without that particular element. I’m inclined to agree. Does that make them a stroke of artistic brilliance or a flaw? That is not a question I feel I can answer.