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.

Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

NinefoxGambit

Layers. Layers on layers on layers, ploys on top of ploys, backstabbing all the way down. And somewhere, sandwiched between all those knives, a few people trying to make a tyrannical empire a better place despite itself.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series (of which I’ve read the first two books) feels like a reimagining of the fundamental critiques of Warhammer 40k—but instead of trapping his work beneath cynical satire and Poe’s Law, Yoon Ha Lee renders his critiques of empire transparently and with heart.

Ninefox Gambit is a new presentation of classic sci-fi military fiction, discarding the traditional fetish for the tools of war and replacing it with an exploration of the human cost of imposing and maintaining empire… and of resisting and rectifying it. It does this all with a setting in which the violent and malignant imposition of hegemony is part and parcel of the exotic technological base necessary for interstellar civilization, and in which heretical practice literally erodes the power and capabilities of the empire’s technologies; mathematical and spatial relations, punctuated by suffering and pain, form the bedrock of calendrical technology, and the embrace of this calendrical tech-base has trapped the Hexarchate in a never-ending cycle of violence and subjugation.

With the Hexarchate’s rulers a group of professionally inhumane paranoiacs, determined to retain their power and uphold the stability of their realm with no care for the cost in lives, it takes a very special kind of heretic to oppose them.

If you like science fiction, or military fiction, or anti-imperial explorations in uncomfortably familiar alien settings, this book is for you. If you want your books to explain everything to you and never leave you piecing together elements of a setting or story… I might suggest something else.

Also, if you’ve traditionally avoided sci-fi mil-fic because it’s one long paean to unquestioning support of cis-het male hegemony, don’t worry. This series radically normalizes queered gender and sexuality. I really appreciated that.

In case you couldn’t guess, I think this book (and series) is great. I don’t want to say more, because I want you to experience it for yourself. I strongly recommend Ninefox Gambit.

If you like this book, I’d also recommend Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant.