TLDR: An incredible title that lends itself to a variety of interpretations sets the tone for this book, a slightly slower sequel to its predecessor, filled with characters trying to find their footing largely with each other as an extension for the world itself. Mahit, the protagonist, is as well-written again, while old and new characters given POVs throughout really flesh out the world beyond Teixcalaan this time. While the previous book looked at Teixcalaan as something to be invited into, a culture that made you want it even as it conquered you, this one breaks down empire and its costs, betraying the adult characters of Teixcalaan for who they really are — not without blood on their hands. It also shows fervent nationalism on all sides, a really interesting plot point that echoes the war of attrition that takes up the book — there are no winners in such a game. A story that challenges accepted SF&F tropes of emperors and power and who belongs on either side, sometimes it can be a little on-the-nose, but it’s never not excellent writing, and very clever.
This book is the sequel to the Hugo-award winning A Memory Called Empire, which (in case me reviewing the sequel didn’t imply), I highly recommend. Please check out my review.
This review will contain spoilers for the first book – but not this sequel that I’m reviewing.
Series: #2 in Teixcalaanli Duology
Book: A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine
Synopsis: An alien threat lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is supposed to win a war against it. In a desperate attempt to find a diplomatic solution, the fleet captain has sent for an envoy to contact the mysterious invaders. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass – both still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire – face an impossible task: they must attempt to negotiate with a hostile entity, without inadvertently triggering the destruction of themselves and the Empire.
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
(Reading time: 3 mins)
This sequel centres around moving on from the ending of the last book. Mahit Dzmare pointed the Teixcalaan Empire away from her home Lsel Station to a new, violent threat and returned home. That is where this story begins.
Like the first book, it takes you a while to get into the meat of the story, but that’s not to say its uninteresting until that point. As we have already started from a platform of familiarity with the world building, A Desolation Called Peace begins with character moments instead. Of course, there is a return to Mahit Dzmare, the ambassador now back on her home world of Lsel Station, away from the place that gave her identity through that very role. Excitingly, there are other POV characters in this story, too. We get Three Seagrass – and her relationship with Mahit is delved into further in this book, a slow but inevitable progression – as well as new characters including Nine Hibiscus, who is leading the war effort and my favourite, Eight Antidote, the kid clone of the previous Emperor, if you recall.
I didn’t realise this book would begin with Mahit on Lsel Station, but I was very excited when it did. One of Mahit’s main character points of the previous book was her entanglement with Teixcalaan, her fondness for that culture over her own. I like the way that part of her identity is explored, a lot. You want to sink into it all over again, untangling the intricacies. Mahit’s issue, which she confronts more in this book as she watches Teixcalaan face off against a different species than her own, is wanting to belong to the world she has studied and immersed herself in; but Teixcalaan doesn’t want you, it wants your subjugation. There’s a really great bit in the book towards the end where Eight Antidote is talking to the Emperor about peace; Teixcalaan has created peace across several star systems, but at what cost? Their own, and others. And it is endless.
This book isn’t a ‘war book,’ but enough of the plot is given to this event to convey its seriousness. I did want to spend more time on Lsel Station, as I think it was quite little, and even what there was involved Mahit trying to get to grip with herself rather than showing us the world. We small parts of Lsel culture – a civilisation built on a created space station, rather than a planet – things like anti-Teixcalaanli graphic novels, or the way Lsel has windows everywhere so they can see out at the space around them, or even the very intricate political balance that exists there. I understand why it wasn’t included so much – a large part of Mahit’s story is that she feels like an exile, particularly after learning of the sabotage she underwent at the hands of one of her own leaders – but I was intrigued! I wanted more!
And, actually, the alien threat of this plotline made me want more of other civilisations too. I think this is because the author does such a good job of creating little quirks, things like Teixcalaan’s fondness of poetry or the whole imago-machine situation of Lsel, that I’m excited to see what else she can write.
I’m not going to lie, one of the things that makes this book so readable to me is that the author writes in exactly the way I enjoy – a liberal use of parentheses with lots of tangents delving into thoughts, world building or outside observations. I also think these asides are well-written, because they feel contained, rather than beginning to spiral off, so you don’t forget what you were reading about in the first place. I feel like half of my review posts could benefit from that.
So what about the actual plot, the alien threat? Well look, they’re very interesting. They don’t have spoken language in the way that Mahit, or Teixcalaan (the humans), do. This brings up continuous interesting conversations about what humanity means, who can be considered human and who exactly it is that’s doing the considering. One of the new interesting characters is Twenty Cicada, the second-in-command to Nine Hibiscus, and, interestingly, not Teixcalaanli by birth. He follows a lifestyle of balance, and the mystery that surrounds his person and his background reflects the difficulty all other characters have in understanding this kind of harmony. Twenty Cicada, along with Mahit, along with the aliens, are ‘not human’ to Teixcalaan. Even Three Seagrass, ostensibly Mahit’s closest ally among the Teixcalaan, someone who may even love Mahit, is constantly referring to her as ‘the barbarian,’ because she is outside of Three Seagrass’ world.
“Would you be as fascinated with these aliens as you have been with me? Considering we are all barbarians, even if I am as human as you are?” This is what Mahit asks of Three Seagrass and, in the end, is what each of the characters must ask themselves, most importantly, wtf it means.
Is it worth the read? 100%!
What else has the author written? Loads of short fiction.