Book Review: A Desolation Called Peace

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

🌺🌺🌺🌺🌺/5

First contact was for diplomats and people who got into epic poems.

An alien enemy lurks at the edges of Teixcalaanli space, and when the commander of the fleet requests a language expert, Three Seagrass—still reeling from her part in the events two months before—hops aboard. But first, she’s going to make a little detour to Lsel Station to pick up her favorite barbarian, Mahit Dzmare, who has fallen into some political troubles back home.

I AM SCREAMING

NOT SINGING

SCREAMING

*deep deep hyperventilating breaths*

Okay, I’m good.

*SCREAMING RESUMES*

“I am very small,” Three Seagrass said, delightedly. “I squish. Put me between the boxes of hearts, I’ll do just fine.”

It’s not going to be a lie when I say that A Memory Called Empire blew my mind, made me feel like I knew nothing (I still don’t) and then this book added weird aliens to the mix (fucking mushrooms and fungus, folks—steer clear of that shit) and a language that you think you know the answer to but you really don’t.

Loyalty wasn’t transitive. It didn’t move up and down the chain of command smoothly. It could get cut off, or rerouted.

Like the previous book, this one delves heavily into politics and plays with the idea of collective consciousness/memory (on three different levels).

In a world that has just survived a massive change-up to the old regime, with an insurrection squashed, a new emperor (regent) installed and a child-emperor clone who just squeaked shy of having his will replaced with his ancestor, there is a lot of underlying tension and mistrust.

Everyone has their own agendas and motivations, and different ideas of what the Teixcalaan Empire should become, all competing in a massive reshuffling of personnel and resources and rebuilding after a coup. And then add a mysterious war to the mix—you get blood hungry imperials who are just chomping at the bit to attack, and a commander who is willing to use more sense than traditional bloodlust to go for the kill and the win. And then the aliens are beyond weird, plus the fighter pilots are all acting hinky after a new tech upgrade that seems to be eroding their mental stability.

Swimming through this political morass is the fleet commander Nine Hibiscus (chosen for her position because she was too smart for her own good), Three Seagrass (mourning the loss of her best friend and the departure of her barbarian crush and also her writer’s block), and Eight Antidote (the ten-year-old clone of the previous emperor).

Back on Lsel Station, Mahit has spent the past two months wandering around kicking rocks (admittedly, she has a lot to deal with, what with being flung feet first into a massive political situation as a barbarian ambassador and then dealing with a botched imago surgery that left her with two Yskandrs to deal with).

She quickly gets bogged down into political shenanigans yet again, what with three of the six councillors wanting to use her for political gains. Wrapped into this is the implication of imago lines and collective memory.

Lsel Station has maintained its position and knowledge as much as it has because it has passed down its memories in human form, to the point where imago history/human memory is considered the only accurate form of history and knowledge, rendering paper histories useless. It’s a fascinating concept of the understanding of history and historical accuracy, made even more interesting with a comic strip of two people struggling to stay warm and one urging the other to just go ahead and burn the useless (but actually very important) records because they had imagos and those were what was important.

I did want more on the imago lines and accurate records, particularly since there was a lot of evidence that the minister in charge of the imago lines was manipulating them (with the implication her predecessors did the same thing) to subtly alter the perceptions of history and memory into a more uniform shape. Because when the only thing that remains of the historical record is human memory (and everyone admits that the imagos are better for skillsets rather than specific details), what becomes of history?

Anywho, Mahit is in a world of hurt until she manages to escape offstation with Three Seagrass, and the two try to manage their tumultuous feelings for each other while battling sleep deprivation and an alien language that induces literal nausea when heard. The cultural differences—particularly with Three Seagrass’s cultural prejudice against anything not of the of the world—makes an impact, and this understanding of what is Teixcalaanli and what isn’t (and who gets to be part of the world and who doesn’t) has a huge and subtle piece of the book.

How much, for example, can an outsider become immersed in the world? What does it take to belong to the world entirely, particularly when there are so many qualifications and addendums? Three Seagrass, who grew up and lived entirely in the main city in the upper levels of society, has been culturally indoctrinated and belongs without question, whereas Nine Hibiscus’ XO, Twenty Cicada (already questionable because he took the name of an animal instead of a non-living thing) was of a barbarian world that was forcefully assimilated into the Teixcalaanli empire. The balance to which he is a performative Teixcalaanlitzim and also retains his cultural roots is interesting, and it’s very clear that the only reason he was allowed to ascend so high was due to Nine Hibiscus’ paternalism/friendship. Anywho, Twenty Cicada was definitely one of my favorite characters, mainly because I love amazingly competent logistical people who save cats and grow plants and flowers.

Oh fuck I’ve written too much and there is still so much more to say!

Remember me? I’m the Emperor, just in kid shape. Just wait, and I might be the Emperor again.

The last main character is Eight Antidote (I’m not really going to talk about Nine Hibiscus because her POV was kinda boring and I would rather have had Twenty Cicada’s POV instead), who is a literal child that gets absent-mindedly treated like an adult and allowed to make his own decisions. He’s pretty mature for his age, but the general shoulder-shruggy nature of Nineteen Adze in ensuring that he has structure, education and um, something of a childhood, is definitely lost—which turns his POV into something of a tragedy, mainly because of how culturally indoctrinated I am into how childhood is supposed to go (and admittedly, several other characters are like “well shit when I was ten I was painting my toenails” so even they realize how far out of his depth this poor child is allowed to go).

Eight Antidote was moderately similar to Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird—a precocious, intelligent and yet still naive of the world child allowed to explore their world and make sense of it as they see fit. However, Eight Antidote has no support/comfort/disciplinary-figure like Calpurnia (unless you kinda count Three Laurel or the City itself? In which case, damn, the kid is fucked), and he also lacks a person who takes the time to put the world into context and explains things (Nineteen Adze kiiiinda does this, but she cannot completely reconcile her emotions regarding Six Direction, the previous empire, and it’s pretty clear that she’s floundering just as hard with how to deal with this child-who-is-the-former-emperor-but-not in a way that’s morally right and fair and whatnot).

Anywho, because Eight Antidote is Scout on Speed, he both sees things the adults can’t, maintains his white/black morality, and acts upon it when he sees the adults doing nothing (specifically with the war and the Shard pilots).

There’s definitely a lot more to go into, but I lack the nuance to really do it justice, because Arkady Martine is brilliant (the only downside to this book is a fairly um, cringy sex scene—there’s nothing wrong with it at all, I just felt the way it was written and described was out of tone with the rest of the book, like, a different writing style/perspective? I’m butchering this explanation).

And, of course, there is the humor underlying this entire book. From a pandemic of cats breeding unchecked in the air vents of a space station to comic books to the inherent ridiculousness of bureaucracy, I loved it. Plus, there’s this gem of insight into how you manage computer systems:

“Wake up the ship, then,” Four Crocus said, “and when the programming comes up, say yes to everything.”

SAY YES TO EVERYTHING

I received this ARC from NetGalley for an honest review

A Desolation Called Peace releases March 2, 2021, from Tor Books

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