Thursday 5 August 2021

Memory Going Backwards

One of the most interesting questions in A Memory Called Empire is whether or not protagonist Mahit Dzmare will turn her back on her native Lsel Station. Will she embrace and adopt the colonial culture of the Teixcalaanli Empire?
(Image via Goodreads)

One of the elements that elevated Arkady Martine’s debut novel above many others is the depiction of Dzmare’s internal turmoil and the interplanetary politics that force the question.

This isn’t a simple decision for Dzmare; not only had she been fascinated with the colonial superpower in her formative years — she had fallen for Three Seagrass, an Imperial bureaucrat. This exploration of a cultural identity is a tender, heartbreaking, and moving series of decisions that reveal the integrity of Dzmare’s character, and perhaps Martine as an author.

For us, this was why Martine deserved the Hugo Award she received for A Memory Called Empire. But it is a source of confusion when assessing the sequel A Desolation Called Peace.

Martine is a fine writer who crafts characters you want to root for and we think readers who want to spend more time in the company of Dizmar, Seagrass, Yskandr Aghavn, and Nineteen Adze will enjoy the book thoroughly. This is a well-written, engaging space opera adventure novel.

The problem is that bringing these characters together again (and returning Mahit Dzmare to the centre of the action) requires no small degree of contrivance. Whether or not a reader finds this construction believable and satisfying will depend on how they understood the relationships in the preceding novel.

This sequel picks the action up just weeks after the end of the first book, with Mahit having returned to her home station to find that she is no longer welcome there. Meanwhile the Empire has become embroiled in a war against an unknowable and mysterious alien race. Three Seagrass strategizes to reunite with Dzmare and drag her into the front-lines of the intergalactic conflict.

Some readers might find the first 150 pages of A Desolation Called Peace serves to undo the resolution of the first book. For example, the will-they-won’t-they romance is restored to uncertainty as if the characters were in a sitcom that needed to return everything to the status quo at the end of every episode. When looking at A Desolation Called Peace through this lens, if feels as though the nuance and meaningfulness of the previous book has been diluted. The final decision that Mahit made at the end of A Memory Called Empire seemed retconned to be not so final. The heartbreaking ending of her romance with Three Seagrass is suddenly not so heartbreaking.

In the novel’s defense, some readers might find the sequel to be a deft examination of the nature of
Colonialism is toxic and has a corrosive effect on
human relationships such as the one between 
Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass. Even if there's
real affection, one cannot help but question the
dynamics of power and appropriation of culture.
(Image via
freedom within the context of colonization. There continue to be strong themes about marginalization of non-mainstream cultures, the erasure of history, and the belittling of an individual’s background or past. When these themes come into conflict with the ideologies of the dominant class, the novel becomes far more interesting. This quote of Dzmare contemplating why she is angry with Three Seagrass makes this tension explicit: “She'd meant, When you understand that there's no room for me to say yes, even if I want to. She'd meant, You don't understand that there's no such thing as being free. Free to choose, or free otherwise.” Ultimately the empire doesn’t change and Dzmare’s story ends the only way it could. This left some readers wondering how the relationship with the empire and the new aliens will evolve.

It’s worth noting that some of the best parts of A Desolation Called Peace feature characters who were not present or not prominent in the previous novel: Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus and Imperial heir Eight Antidote. In these sections, the world of the Teixcalaanli seems as fresh and vibrant as it did in the first novel. The ways in which Imperial power structures and monoculture are corrosive to even those who are in positions of privilege are explored with nuance, and it is shown how internecine factionalism can tear down even those who excel within the system.

But fundamentally, the events of the second book no longer seem to be Mahit Dizmare’s story; she’s written to be the main character, but the story is no longer her own. Rather it seems like a story that was taking place in one corner of the galaxy far from anywhere that an Ambassador from Lsel Station should be. The continued focus on Dzmare seemed incongruous.

In many ways, A Desolation Called Peace succeeds: It’s engaging, sweet, often interesting, and fun. But it also has trouble connecting with and growing from the original story.

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