This was a phenomenal book, something of a political thriller combined with ruminations on the construction of historical memory and the seductiveness of empire, particularly how they use cultural output (books, film, etc.) to make themselves sympathetic and attractive even to the very people they threaten to devour. The main character, Mahit Dzmare, represents a small space station of 30,000 people which is at serious risk of being conquered and subsumed by the Teixcalaanli empire… but Mahit herself has been raised on Teixcalaanli media, is entranced by their culture and almost intoxicated by the excitement of being able to go and live in the heart of the empire for real. I found it an interesting internal conflict and that is, of course, only the very beginning of the story.
The other part of the story is the political thriller part; Mahit Dzmare is sent as a replacement ambassador after the previous one died in suspicious circumstances, and immediately has to try to work out what exactly her predecessor was up to and who of the many political players in this book she can trust. This aspect of the book was pretty dense, and I’ll admit that I kept notes as to who of the many named characters was who, but it was also effectively maintained suspense and I was completely engaged by the story throughout. The setting is also intricately depicted and fascinating, with an evident Aztec influence. It was another one of those worlds I’d love to see depicted in a movie or TV show, because I think it would be visually spectacular.
There are a number of other things I could praise about this book too; I loved how language actually plays an important role, in that while Mahit is clearly fluent enough in Teixcalaanli to be the ambassador, it still takes effort to speak all the time in a language that isn’t her native one and other characters sometimes underestimate her intelligence because she sounds like a foreigner speaking Teixcalaanli, which she is. I thought the imago-machines, and the different perspectives Stationers and Teixcalaanlitzim have on them, were intriguing. I liked the glimpse we got of how working-class and politically subversive Teixcalaanlitzim live (you know, away from the glitz and glamour of the central districts). I appreciated the major characters, and thought they were crafted well. Really, I have nothing to complain about in this book at all.
Overall, if you like thoughtful political thrillers and unique sci-fi settings, I would absolutely recommend this book. I thought it was excellent and will be anxiously hoping that the follow-up next March will be just as good.