A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine – Book Review
A Desolation Called Peace makes half or more of the sci-fi works I’ve read over the last few years seem woefully incompetent. Arkady Martine’s second book is the sequel to the Hugo award-winning A Memory Called Empire. Memory introduced us readers to Martine’s masterfully crafted culture of Teixcalaan, which draws from many real-world empires and people to create something fresh and unique—central concepts of the Teixcalaanlitzlim such as civilized people versus barbarians and the political importance of poetry are borrowed from the Roman and Byzantine empire; the naming conventions of Teixcalaan’s citizens is drawn from the Mixtec people of Oaxaca; and the cultural dominance of this empire should be familiar to anyone who has experience with American cultural imperialism. So…everyone.
I’m not a hundred percent certain, and my copy of Empire is back home so I can’t check, but one aspect in which Desolation breaks the mold set by its predecessor is, it has four very different and well-defined point of view characters, whose unique sets of circumstances show varying elements of Teixcalaanli culture; Mahit and Three Seagrass are our main characters returning from Memory, and the two of them continue the conversation about cultural colonization, civilization versus barbarism, personhood. They are our first two point-of-view characters; by the nature of the relationship defined throughout Empire, their perspectives are entwined. Now, the most important thing you need to know about those two characters is—I ship them eternally and if you don’t, you are a bad person. Bad, bad, bad.
Mahit is still that outsider looking in, in love with the culture of the Empire and horrified by that love, hungry to be accepted as equal to the Teixcalaanlitzim, yet disdaining of the notion that she is any less of a person for her belonging to an out-group. Wiser and with a thicker skin thanks to the events in Memory, Mahit nonetheless exhibits a raw vulnerability that left me speechless and in tatters.
Three Seagrass, whose nickname is Reed, cracked me up. Together with Mahit, the two of them are like saltpeter and sulfur; all they lack is a little charcoal, and Martine offers them plenty in the face of a first contact scenario that’s as heavy on politics, linguistics and tension as Memory, yet offering plenty of levity, too, laugh-out-loud moments that are true to these characters, and evisceratingly hilarious. Every conversation between Mahit and Reed is heavy with implication, heady with (sexual) tension, weighed by secrets and hidden meaning. Plenty to love about these two, the envoy and her pet, the poet and the ambassador, as they take on a first contact scenario that’ll demand every effort from the both of them.
The poetry of Teixcalaan takes a backseat as we are given a glimpse of the Empire’s warriors, facing an invisible foe. Yaotlek Nine Hibiscus leads a legion of six flagships against this enemy of the Empire’s—the title of yaotlek is a sort of admiral, or supreme Navy commander. At any rate, six flagships are an entirely lackluster force against this nebulous alien threat from the depths of unknown space. In Nine Hibiscus, we see once more the Teixcalaanli obsession with the past, in the perfect figure she strikes, in the loyalty she awakens, in the way she thrives whenever she’s in charge of a crisis. Her second is Twenty Cicada, nicknamed Swarm—an unusual name for an unusual character, and a member of a minority religion within the Empire.
Imperial heir Eight Antidote is our fourth PoV character, and he is an absolute treat. An eleven-year-old who feels fully the weight of expectations resting on him, Cure–as he is called by one of his teachers—has the perfect vantage point to offer an unguarded glimpse at the inner workings of empire at the highest level. So much of his PoV section was heartfelt and funny and intriguing – Teixcalaan and the Jewel of the World are seen through another lens entirely. The absolute highlights for me were the conversations Cure had with Nineteen Adze and the Minister of War Three Azimuth; these interactions serve to shape Antidote’s moral identity, which is a pretty nifty thing to have, as far as future emperors are concerned.
I would go remiss if I didn’t speak of the personal importance of this book and its predecessor to me. Like Mahit, I am a student of a culture that is not my own; the distance is not as great, of course, but it is there nonetheless. I’m not English, I’m not American, and yet I think in English more than I think in my own native Bulgarian; I know dozens of poems by Keats and Blake and Milton, but I barely remember the last time I read a poem in Bulgarian. In my apartment in Sweden, I do not own a single paperback in my own language – and if not for Arkady Martine’s books, this might not have even occurred to me as strange. But the truth of the matter is, I’ve been colonized. Every single one of my friends, people I slip in conversation in fluent English with—what does that speak of but just this type of cultural colonization?
To quote Martine, “Propaganda’s fascinating when it’s inside your own mind.”
Mahit thought in Teixcalaanli, in imperial-style metaphor and overdetermination. She’d had this whole conversation in their language.
Deliberately, she thought in Stationer, We’re not free.
And in the same language, Yskandr agreed. <There’s no such fucking thing.>
More than any other work, more than any other thing in my life, this series has inspired me to pursue a master’s degree in cultural studies—fingers crossed I’ll be accepted.
By the end of this novel, traditions—central tenets of the Teixcalaanli culture, no less—will be uprooted. Differing visions of Empire will violently clash against one another, revealing both rot and things worth preserving. You will be endlessly surprised—as I was when I read Memory, and again, when I read this one.
Desolation is a novel without villains, without clearly demarcated good guys and bad guys, merely people with differing ideologies, modes of communication, conceptions of selfhood and personhood. Those same questions of conflicting loyalties and of civilization, are once again at the fore of Martine’s narrative, but are turned to the exploration of different angles, of belonging and cultural dissemination. Granted, when I say there are no villains, I separate between narrative and my own strong dislike of certain characters. I won’t give much away, but I will say, die in a fire, old man!
A few funny tidbits added familiarity to what can, at times, be a distant speculative world. The binging, in particular: the Teixcalaanli civilization has as much a sweet tooth as we do about binging content—though their strict preference is in the way of period dramas—Hello, of course it is, they come from a culture obsessed with the glories of the past and in capturing those glories in poetic and literal repetition.
I can’t recommend this enough if you’re ever looking for something more cerebral, tense and rich on those questions of cultural heterogeneity that are so interesting from the view of someone whose own culture has been displaced, skewered more than halfway out of orbit in a significant way by an all-pervasive, domineering culture.