A fascinating space opera debut novel, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire is an interstellar mystery adventure.
Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.
Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.
She was lying on the ground, her cheek wet in the spilled water. The air roiled with thick, acrid smoke and shouting in Teixcalaanli. Part of the table—or part of the wall, some heavy immobilizing marble—had come down on her hip and pinned her with a radiating spike of pain when she tried to move. She could only see a partial visual arc—there were chair legs and debris blocking her—but in that arc was fire.
She knew the Teixcalaanli word for “explosion,” a centerpiece of military poetry, usually adorned with adjectives like “shattering” or “fire-flowered,” but now she learned, by extrapolation from the shouting, the one for “bomb.” It was a short word. You could scream it very loudly. She figured it out because it was the word people were screaming when they weren’t screaming “help.”
She couldn’t see Three Seagrass anywhere.
Wetness dripped onto her face, as wet as the spilled water but from the other side. Dripped and collected and spilled over the hollow of her temple and across her cheek and her eye and was red, was blood. Mahit turned her head, arched her neck. The blood flowed downward, toward her mouth, and she clamped her lips shut.
It was coming from Fifteen Engine, collapsed back into his chair, the front of his shirt—the front of his torso—torn open and away, his throat studded with shrapnel. His face was pristine, the eyes open and glassily staring. The bomb must have been close. To his right, from the angle of the pieces she could see.
Yskandr, I’m sorry, she thought. No matter how much she dis-liked Fifteen Engine—and she had been developing a very direct and powerful dislike, just a moment ago—he was someone who had been Yskandr’s. She was Yskandr enough to feel a displaced sort of grief. A missed opportunity. Something she hadn’t safeguarded well enough.
A pair of knees in smoke-scorched cream trousers appeared in front of her nose, and then Three Seagrass was wiping the blood off her face with her palms.
“I would really like you to be alive,” Three Seagrass said. It was hard for Mahit to hear her over the shouting, and even the shouting was being drowned out by a rising electric hum, like the air itself was being ionized.
“You’re in luck,” Mahit said. Her voice worked fine. Her jaw worked fine. There was blood in her mouth now, despite Three Seagrass’s efforts to smear it away.
“Great,” said Three Seagrass. “Fantastic! Reporting your death to the Emperor would be incredibly embarrassing and possi- bly end my career and also I think I’d be upset—are you going to die if I move the piece of the wall that’s fallen on you, I am not an ixplanatl, I don’t understand anything about non-ritual exsanguination except not to pull arrows out of people’s veins and I learned that from a really bad theatrical adaptation of The Secret History of the Emperors—”
“Three Seagrass, you’re hysterical.”
“Yes,” said Three Seagrass, “I know,” and shoved whatever was pinning Mahit to the ground off of her hip. The release of pressure was a new kind of pain. The hum in the air was growing louder, the space between Three Seagrass’s body and her own beginning to shade a delicate and terrifying blue, like twilight approaching. The marble restaurant floor had lit up with a tracery of aware circuits, all blue, all glowing, coloring the air with light. Mahit thought of nuclear core spills, how they flashed blue as they cooked flesh; thought of what she’d read of lightning cascading out of the sky. If it was ionized air they were already dead. She struggled up on her elbows, lunged for Three Seagrass’s arm, and catching it, hauled herself to sitting.
“What’s wrong with the air?”
“A bomb went off,” Three Seagrass said. “The restaurant is on fire, what do you think is wrong with the air?”
“That’s the City noticing—”
A section of the restaurant’s roof shuddered and fell, ear-shatteringly loud. Three Seagrass and Mahit ducked simultaneously, pressed forehead to shoulder.
“We have to get out of here,” Mahit said. “That might not have been the only bomb.” The word was easy to say, round on her lips. She wondered if Yskandr had ever said it.
Three Seagrass pulled her to her feet. “Has this happened to you before?”
“No!” Mahit said. “Never.” The last time there had been a bomb on Lsel was before she was born. The saboteurs— revolutionaries, they’d called themselves, but they’d been saboteurs—had brought the vacuum in when their incendiaries exploded. They’d been spaced, afterward, and the whole line of their imagos cut off: thirteen generations of engineering knowledge lost with the oldest of them. The Station didn’t keep people who were willing to expose innocents to space. If an imago-line could be corrupted like that, it wasn’t worth preserving.
It was different on a planet. The blue air was breathable, even if it tasted like smoke. Three Seagrass had hold of her elbow and they were walking out into Plaza Central Nine, where the sky was still the same impossible color, as if nothing had gone wrong.
Copyright © 2019
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