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A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

book cover of A Desolation Called Peace

It took me a long time to get through this book, something that says more about how difficult it is to carve out uninterrrupted time for reading during lockdowns than it does about this book. (Except in saying that this is the kind of book that you have to give your full attention to, which it is.) I loved the first book in this duology, A Memory Called Empire, which was such a clever rumination on imperialism, culture, language and identity as well as a compelling political thriller, and I had high hopes for this sequel. I don’t think I ended up enjoying it quite as much, as it reverts to more conventional space opera settings like space ships and war rooms, but it was still very good.

At the beginning of this book Mahit Dzmare is back home on Lsel Station, and in hot water after the events of the previous book. When her Teix­ca­laan­li friend, Three Seagrass, arrives to say that the Empire needs her help, making first contact with an alien race whose armada is picking off Teix­ca­laan­li warships with disturbing effiency, Mahit seizes the chance to escape. This storyline spends a lot of the time dwelling on the question of “who are people”. Mahit and Three Seagrass initially find it very difficult to establish a pidgin for communication with these aliens, but it does seem to Mahit that they are “a kind of people”… while all the while she is wondering, miserably, whether Teix­ca­laan­li­tzim even consider “barbarians” like her to be people. Her suspicion that they do not, not fully, causes conflict between her and Three Seagrass, who for her part is flummoxed by Mahit’s sudden moodiness.

There is a second major POV character in this novel, though, which is Eight Antidote, the eleven-year-old “90% clone” of the previous emperor of Teix­ca­laan, Six Direction. Eight Antidote’s storyline revolves around wanting to become well-informed as to the political situation, especially as Teix­ca­laan seems to be slipping inexorably into all-out war, and ultimately becoming well-informed enough to set out to make his own intervention into the conflict.

Like in the first book there is definitely still political intrigue – power struggles between the various commanders within the imperial fleet, and between different government departments back on “the Jewel of the World” (the Teix­ca­laan­li home planet), as well as between different factions on Lsel Station. Overall I think the first book was more gripping in this regard, but that’s not to say that this book is bad – just that, for me, it didn’t equal the enormous heights of its predecessor.

I think my favourite parts of this book were any time Mahit and her “imago-predecessor”, Ysk­andr, were interacting. For someone who exists entirely within Mahit’s mind, Ysk­andr manages to be a very engaging character. There is also a sex scene where the Mahit-Ysk­andr duality adds this really interesting twist to it.

Overall, I thought this was more of a “standard” space opera than the refreshingly unique A Memory Called Empire, but it’s still a very good space opera. If you liked the first book, there’s no reason not to move on to this.

★★★★

a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.