After reading and LOVING The Long Way to a Small, Angry Plant (and the follow-up books set in the same world, A Closed and Common Orbit and Record of a Spaceborn Few), I realized that “space opera” was a new favorite sci-fi sub-genre for me. Oh, and of course, Binti is amazing, but I still need to finish that trilogy! Anyways, the point is that I’ve been kinda keeping my eye open for space operas now and this one came across my radar last year. I had it on the backburner, but when I saw it at a used bookstore, I figured that was a sign to move it up the list.
“the City rises marching / a thousand starpoints strong / released, we shall speak visions / uneclipsed / I am a spear in the hands of the sun”
Mahit Dzmare is a newly minted ambassador from a small mining Station send to the center of the Teixcalaan Empire. When she arrives, she discovers that the reason the Empire requested a new ambassador is because the previous is dead. And from the minute she arrives Mahit is thrust into a game of political intrigue, empire expansion and emperor succession…all while trying to figure out what really happened to her predecessor (she doesn’t for one second think his death was natural as claimed), adjusting to a completely foreign culture (and find allies in her new home), trying to survive what could be internal sabotage from her own people, guard an incredibly valuable technological secret and follow through on the “normal” ambassadorial duties.
Whoa. This book was nonstop from the very first page. And I mean that in regards to plot, sure, but also to the amount of foreign information that is thrown at the reader. There is definitely no “ease them in” period in regards to the language, culture, relationships or any other part of Mahit’s stationer life or Teixcalaanli lifestyle. I loved that “thrown them in the deep end to teach them how to swim” style of sci-fi/fantasy, because I appreciate not having to parse through an info dump sort of situation for the first quarter of the novel. However, it’s definitely an effort on the part of the reader to stay above water as info comes in – there’s no option to tune out a little or let attention flag at any point. It helps that the story is told through the eyes of an ambassador, educated but alien (“barbarian” to use the novels’ terminology) herself, so extra complicated points and procedures can be spelled out for her in a realistic way and that makes things just accessible enough for the reader to hang on to. I love being that invested in a story, but it’s a worth a warning if you are looking for something that requires a little less effort to enjoy. But if it’s what you’re looking for, then OMG this book has it in SPADES.
The political and lingual complexities of this novel are freaking amazing. They are precise, intricate, consistent and gorgeously developed. The subtle use and interpretations of subtext are fascinating – the cultural and political role wording and poetry plays in Teixcalaan is so unique and creative and you can feel the passion the author has for linguistics shining through so strongly and beautifully. You might get sick of me saying it, but seriously the language, the language, the language in this novel is something really special. Hand in hand with that, the political machinations are similarly complex and riveting. Every little speech, movement, decision, interaction held so much weight and meaning. This story unfolds with finesse and control (with some action-based drama interspersed) and that style may not be everyone’s preference, but I’ve almost never seen it unfold better than it did here. Perhaps this is partially because (as I’ve read in interviews with the author/in the Author’s Note) this story is based on her postdoctoral research on Byzantine imperialism in/around Armenia in the 11th century, particularly the annexation of the Kingdom of Ani and during her study of the Modern Eastern Armenian language. And the ending! I won’t lie, I was a little nervous as we got close and it seemed like there wasn’t enough book left to fully wrap everything up. I loved everything about this story and I didn’t want the ending to (proverbially) mess that up. I should not have worried. It was perfect: dramatic and unanticipated in a way that was a good surprise and also completely realistic and in line with the Emperor’s verbally stated goals and what we knew of him. So good, so smooth.
There were some other included themes that I enjoyed. Mahit’s foreigner exploration of Teixcalaanli culture, specifically as a “barbarian” who both loved and hated (i.e. – was confused by and didn’t necessarily “get” or agree with at times) Teixcalaan was such a great look at what immigrants and ex-pats and refugees feel. It’s a layered and multifaceted set of feelings and reactions and I thought Martine did a phenomenal job representing it. The imago technology was also a fascinating look at the way different circumstances and situations can breed such opposing ides of the same thing. Mahit’s stationer understanding of and need for imago tech versus the suspicious and harmful way the Teixcalaanli people (those who knew about it) saw it (and even some different reactions within those Teixcalaanli people, based on the individual lives/experiences) was a great singular example of that. Plus, it was just a cool sci-fi aspect of the greater story. And last, the general openness of all the characters and settings to sexuality/connection was fantastic. The fact that those types of accepting POVs were noticeable to me, the reader, but weren’t at all worth commenting on for the characters just goes to show how much of a social construct it all is. Loved that. There was one relationship in particular, between Mahit and her cultural ambassador Three Seagrass, which definitely left off with a lot of space for needed (and likely difficult) exploration, so I’m very interested to see how that develops. And one more small thing, I liked the little snippets of reports/poems/journal entries/news that started each chapter. I think I might just like that device (it was great in The Philosopher’s Flight and others as well) as a world-building technique, but I wanted to mention that it was particularly well-done in this case.
I loved this book. It’s further confirmed that space opera is a solid favorite genre for me (and Tor is a favorite publisher). But more than that, I was just so impressed with Martine’s story-telling (great pacing), world-building and the way she was able to create such a compelling and accessible novel with such depth and complexity of politics and language and relationships. It was a whirlwind, the best kind, from start to finish and though it ended in a very satisfying and natural way, I’ll just be over here eagerly awaiting the next installment.
A couple very insightful quotes that stuck out while I was reading:
“Patriotism seemed to derive quite easily from extremity.”
“Walls did that. Walls kept out the visible signifiers of unrest.”