A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Teixcalaan Series
by Arkady Martine

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted March 30, 2019
Edits & Addendum on February 7, 2021

1. A Memory Called Empire / 2. A Desolation Called Peace

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I'm giving this page the series title of Teixcalaan, which refers to the interstellar empire at the heart of the story. Arkady Martine is the pen name used for fiction by Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, who has a PhD in Byzantine history and a Masters in Classical Armenian, currently pursuing a Masters in Community Planning at the University of Maryland. [EDIT: She's now a policy advisor for the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department of New Mexico.] Not being that familiar with the Byzantine period I can't be sure, but I suspect it informed a lot of the governmental and societal structure of the Teixcalaanli Empire. After all, in addition to it being the proper name of an historical empire, byzantine also has a definition of, "a system or situation excessively complicated, and typically involving a great deal of administrative detail." The history of the Teixcalaanli Empire and its leaders is learned and recounted in epic poems, and poetry is a common means of expressing political thought in everyday life, as well as being the basis of a major portion of the entertainment media. Several of the words used to describe poetic forms have Greek roots, but other words identifying governmental agencies are either original to this book, or possibly derived from Mesoamerican cultures. The Teixcalaani Emperor sits on the "Sun-Spear" throne, and the spilling of blood while swearing oaths is a common practice.

UPDATE: Winner of the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel; also the Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Memorial Award. Finalist for Nebula, Clarke, and Locus.

The majority of the action takes place within the empire, primarily on its home planet, which is alternately referred to simply as the City (it encompasses the majority of the planet), or as The Jewel of the World, the world being the empire as a whole. However, the main character is not a Teixcalaanlitzlim. Mahit Dzmare is the newly appointed Ambassador from Lsel Station, which is independent. Lsel is an orbiting structure within a star system which has no habitable planets, although they are mineral rich. The stations mine the planets, moons, and asteroids of the system, the empire being their primary trade partner. The population of the stations has to be strictly controlled due to finite resources, and a technology has been developed that helps to retain the knowledge of past Stationers. The imago-machine, implanted near the brain stem, records memories, and each successive use of a partiuclar imago-machine informs its new user of the thoughts and actions of previous users. When Mahit is called to Teixcalaan she only has three months to adapt to the imago persona of the previous Ambassador, Yskandr Aghavn, whereas the typical period would be at least a year. She is also hampered by the fact that Yskandr had not been back to Lsel in fifteen years, so the imago memories she has to work with cover just his first five years of ambassadorial service. There has also been no communication with the real Yskandr for a while, so Mahit journeys to Teixcalaan ignorant of his fate and the diplomatic situation she will be inheriting.

Shortly after her arrival she learns that Yskandr is dead, the official story being anaphylactic shock due to a food allergy, yet she, and imago-Yskandr, suspect murder. Mahit's situation becomes even more dire when her imago-machine malfunctions during the viewing of the body. At first she suspects imago-Yskandr is traumatized from seeing its dead body, but later events lead her to believe her imago-machine may have been sabotaged. But by whom, and for what purpose? For her first few hours in Teixcalaan she had the guidance of imago-Yskandr, now she has no access to his memories and is on her own. Like many other Stationers, she had learned a lot about the empire through its epic poems and other media, but is ignorant of much of the current political machinations of the various agencies. She is assigned a liason, the asekreta Three Seagrass, an agent of the Ministry of Information. Mahit had long been fascinated with the empire and its customs, and Three Seagrass is her mirror opposite, long fascinated with "barbarians," eager to learn more on her new assignment. Mahit requests a meeting with Yskandr's former liason, but that meeting does not go well. Three Seagrass is injured during the incident and taken to a hospital, but Mahit is taken into protective custody by the ezuazuacat Nineteen Adze, a high-level advisor to His Brilliance, Emperor Six Direction. Mahit is adrift without her imago-machine, ignorant of the many levels of Teixcalaanli government and military agencies, so she has no idea who to trust. Quite a few of them refuse to say Yskandr's death was not accidental, but she senses the unspoken implications. Then one of them blatantly admits their guilt, knowing she cannot prove it or do anything about it. What she doesn't know is if it's about annexing Lsel and other stations into the empire, or if it has more to do with internal conflicts about who will succeed Six Direction as Emperor. A disaffected faction is pushing for the yaotlek One Lightning, the military's supreme leader, to depose Six Direction by force if necessary. That would involve Lsel, since it is in close proximity to two jump-gates needed by the fleet for One Lightning's proposed military campaigns.

I had previously read the first two chapters when they were posted at tor.com, and while I liked them, I was thinking it might prove too dense to parse the political and social systems. But that notion was dispelled quickly as Martine opened it up with intriguing exposition as Mahit learns more about Teixcalaan and forms bonds with several of its citizens. Fascinating characters, intricate and nuanced political and social discourse, embedded within an intriguing, multi-layered mystery. Mahit had assumed Lsel's imago technology was a closely guarded secret, but then learns Yskandr had revealed it to select individuals. She is forced to continue with that revelation in order to maneuver her way through Teixcalaanli bureaucracy. Some have the mistaken notion it is a path to immortality, and she has a difficult time dissuading them of that opinion. Even if her imago-machine had not malfunctioned, she would not be another version of Yskandr, only enhanced by his experiences, not controlled by them. Mahit will decide her own destiny, and that applies even after she reacquires imago-Yskandr. She had developed several close relationships with Teixcalaanlitzlim, including the new Emperor, but ends her first Ambassadorship by returning to Lsel to sort out the different political factions there. I assume she will return to Teixcalaan in the future, or maybe it will be another Ambassador with an imago-Mahit to guide them. Wherever Ms. Martine wants to take the story, I'll follow.

No author works in a vacuum, they are informed and inspired by their other interests, whether that be the study of history or their own fictional readings. I wouldn't presume to say who influenced Martine, but I felt the echoes of a few recent genre works; Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy; the imago technology evoked memories of Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire; the focus on epic poems and dramatic works made me think of the narrative disorders in Malka Older's Centenal Cycle. Regardless of her inspirations, Martine has crafted a unique new narrative vision. I've read many excellent books this year alone, several of them debut novels. This is at the top of the list for now. Highly recommended. [EDIT: I re-read it before going on to the sequel. Totally deserving of its Hugo win.]


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Posted February 7, 2021
I was lucky in getting an ARC of A Desolation Called Peace from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. It will be published March 2. Among its many other virtues, the first book was unpredictable, and it was not easy to visualize where the story would go from there. One thing I had hoped for did come to pass: the return of Three Seagrass, Ambassador Mahit Dzmare's cultural liason in Teixcalaan. She had been promoted to Third Undersecretary in the Ministry of Information, while Mahit had returned to Lsel Station. Just as Teixcalaan had multiple government agencies at odds with each other, so did Lsel. Six Councilors control most of the operations. One of the reasons Iskandr had not returned to the station in such a long time was to avoid Darj Tarats, Councilor for the Miners. Tarats had perceived an alien threat, which he wished the empire to contain, since Lsel's defensive capabilities was confined to protection of their trade vessels from piracy. Iskandr had developed personal relationships with both Emperor Six Direction and the ezuazuacat Nineteen Adze, as well as falling in love with Teixcalaan itself. He balked at manipulating them into what could be an unending, or unwinnable, war. Against his wishes, Mahit drew Teixcalaan into that war. After returning to Lsel, Mahit had done everything she could to avoid Aknel Amnardbat, Councilor for Heritage, whom she and imago-Iskandr suspect of sabotaging her imago-machine.

Meanwhile, back on the City, Three Seagrass intercepts a communication from the new yaotlek Nine Hibiscus, requesting an interpreter to deal with first contact with the aliens. Without consulting any of her superiors, Three Seagrass books passage on a freighter going in that direction, with a stop at Lsel Station before heading into the war zone. She convinces Mahit to go with her, both because Mahit is an accomplished linguist, and she wonders if they have a chance at a relationship. Mahit would like that too, except she suspects Three Seagrass is only enamoured of her because she is a "barbarian." It also provides Mahit with a means to further avoid Amnardbat. I won't go into much more detail about the plot. Some of what Mahit and Three Seagrass do is successful, but others contribute to the negotiations, and there are multiple times when others almost sabotage the negotiations. Once again, unpredictable, and without a true conclusion. Will the next book (will their be another?) further explore the alien race, or will it switch to another situation within Teixcalaan, or within Stationer space? Even though Three Seagrass invites her, Mahit does not want to return to the City, at least not yet.

While I enjoyed it, I didn't like it as much as A Memory Called Empire. Maybe if I hadn't re-read it last week the multiple times she rehashed previous plot points wouldn't have bugged me, but even then I don't think they were sufficient to inform a new reader who hadn't read the first one. Some readers might not like the unconventional names, both within Teixcalaan and on Lsel Station. There are quite a few women characters, although due to their names I sometimes forgot which were women. Not quite as confusing as in Leckie's Radch series, but I did have to keep notes on them. There were also multiple times I felt plot turns weren't logical, many of those involving Eight Antidote, the eleven-year-old 90% clone of the previous emperor. His every move was supposedly tracked by security cameras, yet he was able to do several things within the palace, within the War Ministry, and out in the City. It's possible the new emperor, Nineteen Adze, allowed him to do all of those things just to see how far he would take it, as a test of his abilities and fortitude. The aliens were intriguing, so it will be interesting to see if they and the empire can co-exist, yet the way they were originally presented led me to believe that would not be possible, and that they could have easily defeated the empire. Even with those criticisms I still feel as I did at the end of the first book. Whatever happens next, I'm interested in continuing with the story.


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Arkady Martine

Memory - 3/25/19
Desolation - 3/2/21

Memory won:
Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Memorial

Finalist for:

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