by Arkady Martine
“To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles–this they name empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” –Tacitus, quoting Calgacus, Agricola 30
In the midst of a coup, Lsel Ambassador Mahit Dzmare made a desperate bid to save her people from being swallowed by Teixcalaan by pointing the empire’s military might at a larger threat. On the edge of Teixcalaanli space, an alien threat has begun swallowing ships and planets. They are impossibly fast, impeccably coordinated, and seemingly impossible to communicate with. Military efforts to track and fight them have largely failed, prompting Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus to send for a diplomatic envoy from the Ministry of Information to try another approach. Former cultural liaison Three Seagrass seizes this opportunity, and dispatches herself to the front, stopping on Lsel Station only long enough to pick up the disgraced Ambassador Dzmare. It is not without resentment that Mahit answers Teixcalaan’s call, even as she is fleeing a fraught political situation on Lsel Station. Together Mahit and Three Seagrass will have many challenges to overcome—personal and political—if they hope to bring peace to the empire in this sequel to A Memory Called Empire.
A Desolation Called Peace continues the adventures of familiar characters such as Three Seagrass and Mahit Dzmare, as well as making some additions to the cast. Two of the most interesting new characters are the general Nine Hibiscus, and especially her adjutant Twenty Cicada who belongs to one of the empire’s religious minorities. Efficient and loyal, Twenty Cicada nevertheless has an unusual perspective that makes him something of an outsider among Teixcalaanlitzlim. A Desolation Called Peace also provides an increased role for Eight Antidote—the 90% clone of former Emperor Six Direction—who is heir to Teixcalaan. Although he is young, the coup has caused him to begin to recognize the reality of his future role, and cautiously, experimentally exercise some of his power. He is poised on the edge of a knife, young enough that few people take him seriously, but powerful enough that perhaps they should be paying more attention to the future emperor of Teixcalaan.
Interspersed throughout the narrative are interludes from the perspective of the collective we of the alien hivemind. Arkady Martine executes these with a dab hand, conveying an eerie otherness that often made my skin prickle. These alien ringships have appeared on the edge of Teixcalaan’s territory, and threaten Lsel Station as well. The Lsel council sees an opportunity to break Teixcalaan against a powerful enemy in order to ensure their own continued independence. This is a dangerous game, and not one Mahit necessarily supports, even as one of the councillors charges her to sabotage Three Seagrass’s mission. The alien interludes are relatively short, but on the whole the novel is made up of large, meaty chapters, though the character point of view shifts within each section. Eight Antidote in particular keeps the reader abreast of what is happening back in the capital, even though most of the action takes place at the frontier.
A Desolation Called Peace is in many respects a first contact story; Mahit and Three Seagrass are charged with the unenviable task of finding a way to communicate with the aliens, whose spoken language takes an audible form that makes Teixcalaanlitzlim and Stationers alike physically ill to listen to. Together they seek a diplomatic path, albeit one Mahit has been charged to undermine. Even without Lsel interference, Fleet politics also threaten to overtake their diplomatic overtures. One of the ship captains under Nine Hibiscus’s command, Sixteen Moonrise, has her own agenda, and it does not involve peace with the alien threat. However, the story also interrogates an important question: what is the difference between a human, a barbarian, and an alien? Who decides? Mahit and Twenty Cicada are particularly important to this exploration, as they in many ways sit outside the standard idea of a human or a Teixcalaanlitzlim, at least until they are juxtaposed with the new hivemind.
A Desolation Called Peace is a complicated sequel with as much nuance as the initial installment of this series. The ending was more hopeful than I expected, but still bittersweet. It is the kind of book that does not pass easily away after you finish reading it, but continues to haunt your thoughts long after the final page.
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