Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace picks up soon after the events of its predecessor, the critically acclaimed A Memory Called Empire. Mahit Dzmare, ambassador from the small mining colony Lsel Station to the spacefaring empire, Teixcalaan, that is threatening to assimilate it, returns home from the empire’s capital only to find herself an object of suspicion in the eyes of the station authorities – both for her Teixcalaanli sympathies and for the fact that her imago-machine, a uniquely Lsel technology that carries the memories of the previous ambassador to Teixcalaan, is malfunctioning; in fact sabotaged. Meanwhile, Mahit’s former cultural liaison in Teixcalaan, Three Seagrass, dispatches herself to a sector of space that’s uncomfortably near Lsel Station where the Teixcalaanli imperial fleet, led by commander Nine Hibiscus, is facing down an incomprehensible alien threat; and the eleven-year-old imperial heir apparent Eight Antidote attempts to navigate the byzantine corridors of power and prevent nuclear warfare.
So, whereas A Memory Called Empire spent a lot of its time, narratively speaking, in Teixcalaan itself, A Desolation Called Peace is more interested in what lies outside of it. If the subject of Memory was the culturally seductive power of empire, the subject of Desolation is the working-out of imperial violence. As such, it leans much more heavily on the tropes of military SF – particularly that of the beleaguered captain (Nine Hibiscus) and their trusty second-in-command (here the detail-oriented Twenty Cicada) – than its predecessor. It also repeats the earlier novel’s interest in subtle political manoeuvring, the delicate art of manipulation, but the way it shifts the context of that manoeuvring from a dangerous but outwardly “civilised” imperial court to the explicitly violent military sphere blunts, to my mind, the force of Martine’s critique of empire. The civilisation/barbarism dialectic is key to Memory: it’s a novel that’s literally about the way in which the politeness and gentility cultivated at the heart of empire is a veneer disguising its brutality, and Mahit’s highly-charged conversations with imperial representatives – outwardly proper yet also always encoding the threat of violence – are how she navigates that duality. But in Desolation, that coded threat is made explicit, no longer cloaked in the conventions of politesse and diplomacy: here, we see the military force that maintains and perpetuates imperial hegemony. In this context,the political dance many of the characters engage in – particularly Nine Hibiscus, as she attempts to get her troops on board with her approach to warfare with the aliens, which is rather more cautious than her subordinate officers would like – loses its thematic force. This no longer feels quite like a story about the cultural seductions of empire. In fact, because narrative convention encourages us to sympathise with Nine Hibiscus as a point-of-view character (and with Eight Antidote, who is also a point-of-view character and a child), it can feel uncomfortably like an apologia for Teixcalaan.
That effect is only amplified by the fact that A Desolation Called Peace is, on a narrative level, extremely well-crafted. Its settings – Teixcalaan, the Teixcalaanli fleet and Lsel Station – are vividly and plausibly imagined; they’re places that feel like they go on existing even when they’re not being depicted on the page. The mutual incomprehensibility of Mahit and the Teixcalaanli characters to each other and to the aliens rings very true to the minor communication hitches and difficulties that we experience every day as humans, and is dramatically satisfying as well. The prose, although it adopts an idiom that is recognisably, unchallengingly modern American, nevertheless has an elegance that rhymes with Martine’s depiction of Teixcalaanli culture as obsessed with rhetoric and literary reference. It seems odd to criticise a novel for being too well-made; but I think Martine’s technical successes make her portrayal of Teixcalaan and those who maintain its power over-favourable. In writing about empire’s seductions, Martine seems indeed to have fallen prey to them.