A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine

Arkady Martine has written another excellent book. A Desolation Called Peace branches out from the space covered in A Memory Called Empire, and while I know there’s more that could be squeezed from the first book’s subject matter I think this evolution serves the story (and the reader) well. And don’t worry, Martine doesn’t abandon anything she built before. Instead, she calls forward elements which had been waiting in the wings; it’s more of a shift of focus than a dismissal of the old.

Specifically, where the first book asked “what does it mean to be human, or a person? Who draws the line, and where?” as a running background theme, this book puts that front and center. And I love that. Those questions are important at any time, but they’re integral elements of a totalizing imperial worldview, and as such they’re critical to this story and setting. Honestly, those questions are part of what I love about science fiction in general, and they’re a big part of what I love about this series in particular.

Now, this book felt a little slower to me, more gradual or less heart-in-throat until nearer to the end. But it’s no less fraught. In many ways, the excruciatingly complicated fusion of the personal and political feels more poignant here, even as the book and that fusion explore new themes. And yes, Martine is still good at digging into the ways hegemony wraps itself around everything, strangling like a ligature until conformity (or death) is achieved.

Now, about this book feeling slower… I wasn’t sucked in head first the same way that I was for the first book, not until further into the book than last time. I’ve had a hard time telling how much of that comes from different reading circumstances, like changes in the time I set aside for reading, versus how much comes from differences between the two books. Either way, I’m pretty sure it took me much longer to read A Desolation Called Peace than it took me to read A Memory Called Empire

But the magic that Martine conjures in the first book is still present. A Desolation Called Peace is still full of heartfelt complicatedness, and confusing wants and desires and struggles, and its *really good*. The conflicts brought to the surface here are wonderful. I like seeing them on the page. I haven’t seen them in other books any time recently, and it feels really good to see Martine explore the ways in which hegemony and empire worm their fingers into everything, no matter how intimate or pedestrian.

Unlike with some other series (e.g. Becky Chambers’ books), order matters here; you should absolutely read A Memory Called Empire before you read this one. If the first book wasn’t to your liking, I’m afraid this one probably won’t be either. But if you’re not a light reader, and if you want good intrigue, ethical dilemmas, questions of humanity, interestingly alien aliens, and the baggage of empire… this is your deal.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Arkady Martine absolutely knocks this one out of the park. 

A Memory Called Empire is a lot of things, but at its heart is a bittersweet tension of love, admiration, and despair for a culture and civilization which will destroy one’s own. It’s about being caught on the outside, stuck as an outsider despite so much work done to fit in. And it’s a thriller about loyalty and betrayal, both expected and not, from without and within.

It’s an excellent book, as I said when I mentioned it a couple weeks ago.

I’ve struggled to write anything more here, and thrown out a few hundred words that might spoil the book for you. Exploring what Arkady Martine does so well without giving away her story is… challenging for me.

She’s managed to write a compelling culture, one in which I can see traces of several historical imperial courts and practices, and held it up for us the readers as a deep and multi-layered thing tantalizingly out of reach of our own comprehension. The fraught weight of meaning is present and palpable, but just enough is lost in translation for us to experience it mostly as our narrator does, unable to be a full part of it as anything but barbarians.

Speaking as someone who studied linguistics, and specialized in the production of ideology and ideological identity through political speech, this book is a delight. Speaking as someone who loves studying political science, international relations, history, and the rise, fall, and gradual mutations of empire, this book is marvelous. And as someone who deeply appreciates heartfelt stories juxtaposed with intrigue and danger—wow.

I’m trying not to ruin anything for you. Please just go ahead and read the book. It’s really good.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

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From the end of my reading-log entry for this book: “How the fuck does he do it? Read it again, write in the margins. Buy your own copy.”

What can I possibly say about Seth Dickinson‘s The Traitor Baru Cormorant?

I fear my words will scare you away. This book is painful, heartfelt, and beautiful. I cannot convey the magnitude by which this book surpasses others I’ve read. You’re missing out if you do not read this. Take care of yourself when you do.

I nearly finished it on a rainy day last spring. A twinge of self-preservation made me put down the book with several chapters remaining; I somehow knew to finish it when the sun was shining and I could take time for myself.

I was right. Finishing it, I cried as the book continued to do what it had always done: grab my heart and then methodically twist it into pieces, leaving just enough for hope.

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The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex

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This book is a quiet piece of genius. It’s hilarious, and far deeper than I had expected it to be. And somehow it delivers on its premise without beating you over the head, even as it makes its commentary abundantly obvious to anyone who’s willing to pay attention. I think I’d be hard pressed to find a middle grade adventure novel that I liked more.

I wouldn’t say it’s the best, because I don’t like committing myself to statements like that, but you’d damn well better do yourself the favor of reading this book.

Going back to Lloyd Alexander

I’d forgotten just how much I enjoyed Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three and the rest of the Prydain series when I was younger.  I think I also missed a lot of the gendered subtexts (many of which are pretty overt) when I was reading Alexander’s work the first time through.  Or rather, I didn’t pay much attention to them even though they were right up in my face.  Rereading Lloyd Alexander has been a bit strange.

I’m afraid I don’t have anything more deep for you.  I have to go back to work, reading more Lloyd Alexander and Colonial and Post-Colonial theory, and writing about both of them (though not at the same time).

Though actually, on that note, there’s an excellent quote for you from Chidi Okonkwo’s piece “Casualties of Freedom” that sums up 20th century foreign policy pretty well:

“The role of the West in Third World poverty and instability has been that of pirates who, having plundered and sunk a merchant ship take up positions along the shore and shoot any survivors trying to swim to safety.”