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Book Reviews: March 2019

A Memory Called Empire
Arkady Martine
Hardcover
ISBN: 9781250186430
Tor, March 2019, 464 pgs

A Memory Called Empire“Space opera” usually calls to mind images from Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and so on: big ships hurtling through space, dogfights in smaller ships, protagonists who are essentially space-swashbucklers firing blasters at an encroaching enemy. In this sense, A Memory Called Empire is less “space opera” and more “space political intrigue.” It’s light on action, but the drama is delightful and layered.

Mahit Dzmare is a young, untested ambassador, given what is probably the most stressful post a diplomat from her home can have: She must liaise with the Teixcalaanli Empire. She hails from what the Teixcanlaanlitzlim would consider a backwater, Lsel Station, so she is immediately perceived as a barbarian. The Empire is a military state, and has been gobbling up territories through politics, economics, or outright warfare, couching conquest in terms which suggest they are doing the smaller political systems a favor. While Lsel remains independent, the weight of Teixcalaan as a potentially threatening presence is placed on Mahit’s shoulders. To further complicate matters, shortly after she arrives at the Empire’s capital, she deduces that her predecessor was murdered.

The drama is driven by strong stakes, interesting personalities, and social and political maneuvering. Mahit is a likeable character who is enamored of the Empire’s culture. Nonetheless, her information resources are out of date, and her knowledge of the culture, while more advanced perhaps than anyone else’s on Lsel, comes through research and study. She’s in way over her head, yet she has no choice but to dive deeper. She can’t know who her real friends are, who is planning something despicable, or if they are simply using her for their own ends. Since she is perceived as a barbarian, while she struggles to find her footing, anyone who seems to be helping her might only be amused by her floundering, having no intention of helping her at all. Meanwhile, the plot points (intrigue and conspiracy) build in complexity as the story goes on, in a way which is both deliberate and brilliant.

While the story contains a number of nice science-fictional conceits, the focus of the narrative is on language and culture. The attention to some aspects of Teixcalaanli language is more descriptive than demonstrative. For example, we are told literature—and especially poetry—is central to Teixcalaanli culture, but there are few samples in the text. Nonetheless, the confidence of the storytelling and the story details are incredibly convincing: Since Mahit has studied poetry at length, apropos to her character, she describes the compositions she encounters in terms that only someone well versed in these arts would know. The Empire itself is ostentatious, mirroring, in a sense, the complexity of their language. This elaborate and glitzy setting allows for a lot of interesting worldbuilding, which becomes clever commentary on cultural clash and the sense of personal strangeness one experiences when immersed in a very different place. What makes this even more compelling is Mahit’s fascination with the Empire’s culture. Hesitant comparisons come to mind, but anyone with a passing familiarity of global history can extrapolate potential comparisons and thereby understand just how crazy and cool this concept is.

While the writing itself is accomplished and the plot is well-constructed, some aspects of the world(s) are distracting. Many words and phrasings and concepts are reminiscent or suggestive of something specific in the real world. As a consequence, readers may find themselves struggling to place these fictional elements within the framework of their own understanding of the real world. The name Mahit, as an example, is a popular Indian name. Teixcalaan sounds potentially Aztec. At one point the characters are eating goat cheese. These details will probably not bother some readers, and many will appreciate having a protagonist that represents typically underrepresented people (especially since many space opera protagonists are white males with standard American names—Luke, for example—which go unchallenged for “cultural realism”). For me, perhaps even more so because the story is deeply focused on language and culture, these items sent me down rabbit holes which had little to do with the actual story. Given the focus, I might have had even greater objections if it had been Steve eating steak in Englaysand.

Nonetheless, A Memory Called Empire stands as a great piece of fiction. Sure, compare it to House of Cards, just to give a vague idea of the type of story being told. But understand that this story is much deeper; it does so much more than just being a political thriller. It engages in conversations about culture and self, about conquest, immigration, helplessness, and strength. On a personal level, this is about being lost in a world which will devour you, a world which you kind of love. On a larger scale, this is about all the things which have concerned us through history; more importantly, this is about those things which should concern us right now.

Ragged Alice
Gareth L. Powell
Trade Paperpack/ Ebook
ISBN: 9781250220189
Tor.com publishing, April 2019, 208 pgs

Ragged AliceFans of police procedurals will enjoy Gareth L. Powell’s novella Ragged Alice. Both Broadchurch and The Fall are particularly evoked: in the coastal setting of Pontyrhudd, a small town with secrets; in the protagonist, Detective Chief Inspector Holly Craig, a woman who keeps her distance, who is known for rubbing people the wrong way, and who has returned to her childhood village to solve a murder; and in the flavor of the story itself, noir-leaning, filled with cold and stormy imagery, and veering into scenes occasionally gruesome.

The prologue opens with Lisa Hughes dying by the side of a road, the victim of vehicular homicide at the hands of her boyfriend, Daryl Allen. As Lisa is dying, she is visited by an ominous presence, seen as “a movement like the twitch of a crow’s wing or the flick of a ragged cape.” Afterwards, enter DCI Craig, who has to work with the local police (who vary in helpfulness) and an assigned team while trying to advance her career as a detective. The beginning of chapter one sets the tone perfectly, with Craig examining skids in the road and explaining to the much younger Detective Sergeant Scott Fowler that not only was this not an accident, but that it was premeditated. The majority of the story from this point follows a fairly standard but entertaining crime show trajectory.

The relationship between Craig and Scott stands as a sort of centerpiece around which the rest of the story is built. On the one hand, it’s a trope (or perhaps a cliché) to have an experienced and “on the verge” senior detective matched with a junior detective, whose job from a storytelling standpoint is to pull out story details, provide a bit of tension, and maybe even serve as a litmus for morality or craziness. The characters in Ragged Alice ride the trope enough to provide that “comfort food” sense of enjoyment for fans. At the same time, both characters are infused with a number of specific, fresh details, making them stand apart from crime show counterparts. Their interactions feel genuine enough, and occasionally novel enough, that the read itself never actually feels cliché or dull. The sense of Craig’s disconnectedness works particularly well, and her internal conflicts are captivating.

Stylistically, the story unfolds with an unobtrusive literary flair. Descriptions lend to the mood, word choices and sentences are well-composed. There’s a careful artistry at work, adding much to the book without feeling overworked.

The speculative elements feel very light and, most of the time, peripheral. Arguably the story could have worked just as well as a straight out thriller, the fantastic being easily erasable, or perhaps, replaceable. Nonetheless, the storyline is well-considered, the plotting is solid, the pacing is good, and the bodies stack up in the way that they should.

After a solid build-up, and after Craig’s internal struggle and external suffering, the ending seemed rushed. A few more pages of working towards climax would have felt right, and a few more pages of dealing with the fall-out. Nonetheless, this stands as a dark, enjoyable read, familiar in the right ways, and different enough to be worth tuning in.

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color
Nisi Shawl, ed.
Paperback
ISBN: 9781781085783
Rebellion/Solaris, March 2019, 384 pgs

New SunsHere, respected author Nisi Shawl offers seventeen original short stories, written mostly by recognizable names in the SFF industry, many with ties to Clarion West. In her afterword, Shawl discusses the fact that twenty years ago there were “fewer people of color writing speculative fiction,” saying, “This is now—a time when the anthology you hold in your hands could easily have filled multiple volumes, when I never even got to issue a public call for stories because I received plenty merely by asking the writers of color I personally know.” Thematically, there is no overt emphasis or singular message which stands out; and, as can be expected with almost any anthology, not every story landed well or resonated strongly. As a collection, it is a celebration of people of color, featuring an array of nationalities and styles and voices; better yet, most of the stories are fine examples of good fiction. I won’t attempt to cover each story, but will mention a few that stand out as favorites.

Before this, however, I must mention “The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations” by Minsoo Kang, specifically because it didn’t work for me stylistically. It’s written as a sort of history book. The style left me wanting something that felt more personal or emotional; it was a lot to chew through. At the same time, there are vivid strokes and images in a strong, confident voice. It needs to be mentioned because I sincerely believe this story will appeal to others, and that in this case, I’m just not the right audience.

Tobias S. Buckell’s “The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex” is a fun vision of New York City in the future. There’s a conspiracy and cover-up around an accidental death, and blue-collar protagonist Tavi is caught in the middle. There’s wonderful cultural flavor at play, and an almost pulpy sort of science fiction reminiscent of The Fifth Element. It’s an easy and entertaining read, but also a sly, light-handed socio-political satire.

“Burn the Ships” by Alberto Yáñez pitches wife against husband, Citlal against Quineltoc, in a retelling of the Spanish colonization of Aztec civilization. Citlal and Quineltoc are powerhouses in their own rights, but in very different ways. They have both suffered at the hands of the invaders; they have both watched the invaders destroy everything they hold dear. After their son is killed and the colonizers’ plan to purge the remaining population is discovered, wife and husband clash over last desperate acts. It’s a visceral story, it’s primal and smart, showcasing various kinds of magic while engaging in a high-level discussion on belief and faith. Ultimately it’s a study in oppression and resistance, as well as sacrifice.

Jaymee Goh’s “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” is a striking, shocking, and visceral ride. It’s about monster friendship and romance; it’s about transformation and longevity. It’s also a great twist on mermaid stories. It’s perhaps the most daring piece in the collection, and it’s absolutely unflinching. In these ways, this story is both wonderful and memorable.

E. Lily Yu’s “Three Variations on a Theme of Imperial Attire” is a fairy tale retelling in solid language which, at the outset, seems banal, but quickly becomes strangely fascinating, and resolves as an utterly compelling piece. This story lulls the reader at first, then engages the intellect, and eventually grapples with emotions. It’s deceptively complex and well done.

Karin Lowachee’s “Blood and Bells” utilizes familiar crime show plot points but delivers great writing, including cool language and scene details. In what feels like a near-future gangland setting, gang member Taiyo is accused of an unauthorized killing of a rival gang member, threatening to break a fragile peace. Add to this that the rival gang has laid claim to Taiyo’s child. Tension builds nicely, and the narrative leads to a satisfying conclusion. This piece requires attentive reading, and it’s well worth the time.

“Harvest” by Rebecca Roanhorse is a bloody and sensual modernization of the deer woman legend. Tansi is enraptured by a deer woman, and is driven to perform gruesome acts. This is a grizzly tale of losing one’s sense of self; but it’s also about cultural confusion, loneliness, and murderous vengeance. It’s a dizzying, stunning work of art, told in a style which is at once readable and beautiful.

While these were my favorites, most of the pieces offered stand as strong, or at least interesting. As a whole, it’s a good anthology. Shawl’s elegant note in her afterword exhorts readers to “. . . seek us out. Spread the word. Wish on us, reach for us, and yes, let us gather together in the deep, dark nurseries of stars.” The quality of the fiction gathered here should go far to encourage readers not only to seek out more by these authors, but to follow Shawl’s advice: to advocate, to search, and to wish for more wonderful stories by people of color.

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is an assistant editor at Locus Magazine. He’s soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.