Series: Teixcalaan (#2)
Genre: Space Opera
Publication Date: 04/03/2021
Teixcalaan expands outwards, consuming all in its path. Except Lsel Station, which has negotiated a fragile peace in the face of a greater threat. A fleet is approaching human space. Unidentified, unknowable, and utterly alien . . .
Arkady Martine’s debut A Memory Called Empire was one of my top books of 2019. A beautifully told and highly original space opera that was as intellectually challenging as it was entertaining. It was one of those rare books that worked for me on every level, and also one of the rare occasions on which I find myself in agreement with the Hugo Awards, where Martine won best novel. A Desolation Called Peace was first advertised as being available last year but (I assume) like many others it had its release date shunted back by the pandemic, and has only now appeared. The question is, can it live up to the staggering level of book one?
The answer is yes. A resounding yes at that. A Memory Called Empire left a lot unresolved, with Mahit Dzmare returning home in shame rather than submit to the seduction of Teixcalaan. At the same time, an alien threat manifested on the edge of human space. One thing is immediately clear in A Desolation Called Peace, and that is that the characters are indeed human. Only referred to as Stationers or Teixcallanlitzlim, I spent large parts of book one wondering if they were in fact all alien. But no, Martine has saved the truly alien for the sequel. The impending threat of war gives Desolation a sense of narrative urgency that Empire didn’t always have. But Martine still takes her time with proceedings, and there’s something of a relaxing quality to her writing. This isn’t space opera like most I read. Yes, there are naval engagements and explosions, but the real action takes place in the dialogue.
Just as Empire was a musing on the nature of civilisation, so Desolation concerns itself with language. You see, the aliens don’t speak (or even think) the way humans do. This is abundantly clear from the prologue, which I had to read twice before deciding I wasn’t supposed to understand it immediately. If ever. All the best literary aliens are nonhuman in ways other mediums can’t portray, and here we have some great ones.
A Desolation Called Peace poses a lot of big questions, and to her credit Martine doesn’t try to give concrete answers. How can you talk to someone who doesn’t understand what language is? Can you make peace without the threat of war? What price must you pay for life you want? As with Empire, it’s clear Martine’s answers are different from my own, but her control of language makes for a compelling argument.
This ends the story of Mahit Dzmare, but I am told that the story of Teixcalaan will go on. With these two novels Martine has established herself as a must-buy author. I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.