An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.
In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.
Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.
A Memory Called Empire was one of my favourite books of 2020, so to say I was excited for A Desolation Called Peace is an understatement. A Desolation picks up a few months after the first book, with Mahit wandering around on Lsel and desperately trying to come to terms with the personal consequences of her integration with Yskander, as well as the potential political risks if anyone finds out. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Empire, aliens are lurking – and someone is needed to translate a language that may be untranslatable by humans.
It’s hard to say too much about the plot without spoilers, but if you’ve read A Memory Called Empire you know what to expect: lots of political machinations, relatively limited action (perhaps even less in this book; this is definitely a space opera without the pew pew guns). This duology is ultimately a thematic one, and Martine hits all the same high notes in the sequel as she did in book one. A Desolation Called Peace continues the discussion about memory (both personal and institutional) and collective consciousness, first through the hilarious attempts of Mahit to come to terms with having Yskander always in her mind, as well as through the idea that aliens may communicate and share ideas in a way that is completely well, alien, to us. I won’t say much because of spoilers but it involves fungus. So gross, but so cool. There is also an ongoing discussion – following on from the themes of the first book – about cultural imperalism and assimiliation, and how far people are prepared to go in the pursuit of either joining an empire, or expanding it. Mahit is lost here, no longer at the heart of the Teixcalaan empire but also a stranger on her home planet, and the sense of longing and grief for a culture she was never reallly welcomed into is palpable. Interesting, too, is how this plays out in her relationship in Three Seagrass: how can you love someone who loves you as you are (or as they think you are), but who is also entangled in a culture that requires you to become someone else? Fascinating stuff.
As for the characters, this book expands from Mahit’s single POV to also include Three Seagrass, Eight Antidote (the child heir to the throne we met in book one) and Nine Hibiscus, a yaotlek commander overseeing interaction with the aliens who’ve recently popped up to say hello. Of course, everyone has their own political agenda, formed through various combinations of personal ambition, political nous and access to information (or misinformation). The expanded POVs were both a strength and a weakness of this book; while I enjoyed seeing more of the Empire than would have been possible through Mahit’s eyes alone, the POVs themselves were uneven. Mahit and Three Seagrass were a lot of fun – Three Seagrass’s eternally peppy personality shines through clearly in the text – and Eight Antitode was a fascinating cautionary tale of a child forced to grow up too soon, but I found Nine Hibiscus’ sections to be pretty flat and never really felt like I had a good handle on her character. All of the new POV characters are also as endlessly self-analytical and thinky as Mahit, and while I love the deep ruminations that come from that, it did sometimes become exhausting to be stuck so deep in everyone’s heads.
As expected, this book made me think a lot and for that I am grateful even if this book didn’t quite hit the high notes of A Memory Called Empire for me. I am very excited to see what Arkady Martine writes next. I have heard rumours of a Nineteen Adze novella and while I need it urgently, I’m actually really keen to see her go beyond Teixcalaan because I think her deeply introspective style and rich world-building could be applied in so many fascinating ways.
Note: I received an ARC of this book from Tor. A Desolation Called Peace was published in 2 March 2021.