Holy shit. I mean really, holy shit this one was good. I was sold it as “like Ann Leckie and Iain M. Banks” and when people say that kind of thing to you? You just go “sure, sure” and mentally downgrade it a bit. Saying something is the next equivalent of the Culture novels is like saying something’s the next Harry Potter or the next Tolkien. It’s never actually accurate. But this one… I think it actually might be. It’s seriously bloody good.
But the two comparisons are also valid because it really does have something of the spirit of both in it. Martine has a lot of Banks’ of gentle humour running throughout, never outright funny, but definitely gently laughing at itself, knowing it’s being silly and clever and human and smiling gently at all of that because, well, humans are a bit funny aren’t they? It’s got that grounded realness to it, in the way people interact, that makes him such a brilliant author for me. And then for Leckie, she’s really committed to her space empire being what it is, and written a true world and culture for it, in the way that Leckie managed to make the Radch so alien, so complete and so plausible.
I’m going to keep saying it, but my god it’s bloody good. Not just because it has a lot in common with two authors I really like though. It also has some really wonderful stuff that’s wholly unique.
And then… and then… it’s somewhat Byzantine-inspired. And yes, absolutely a pause here for you all to roll your eyes at how thoroughly predictable a human I am, but I don’t care. I don’t love it purely because of that. The Byzantine-history-and-culture stuff is just the icing on the cake, a happy bonus. And frankly, if it’s me saying that… how fucking awesome must the rest of it be, right?
To calm down just a little bit, the story follows the new ambassador from a small mining community/station to the encroaching space empire that borders onto their space. Her job is twofold – do whatever she can to try to keep her station’s autonomy in the face of the threat of political and cultural domination, and investigate what happened to the previous ambassador, who seems to have disappeared entirely. She’ll be far from home, out of speedy communication range, and adrift speaking a second language in a deeply self-absorbed culture where poetry and elegant speech are a mark of civility, and where she’ll be considered barely a person at all. But more crucially, she’ll suddenly be surrounded by a culture she’s been fascinated by her entire life, and have to resist the temptation to try to fit in, to please, and instead work for the interests of her own people.
There’s a huge amount to say about how great it is – the story is wonderful, the pacing just perfect, the characters instantly real and sympathetic, the world-building ingenious, the politics actually plausible (for once)… but the part I’m going to latch onto is a bit more about personal experience and feeling incredibly, uncomfortably seen.
The protagonist, Mahit, has been obsessed by the culture of Teixcalaan her entire life. She’s learned the language, read the histories, studied the etiquette and politics, absorbed the poetry, even written some of her own. On a purely cultural level, she’s absolutely in love with it… but at the same time, it’s a culture with a long winding history of imperial aggression and cultural domination, with no regard for those it considers outsiders and uncivilised. The book uses this dichotomy to speak a lot about imperialism and colonialism, and it does so wonderfully, brutally and vividly. But the comparison is also one that hits home for a classicist, and the portrayal of that character, of someone seeing both the beauty and the brutality, felt very vivid and immediate for my own feelings about studying the ancient world. The problem of loving the art, the writing, the poetry and the stories, the people you can feel behind those stories reaching down across the years to you, and yet still immediately knowable and human… while at the same time studying the truth of the history, the slavery and the expansionism, the wars, all the awful things tied to every great power in history. And because the Byzantines were very much Martine’s map for the Teixcalaani culture she created, a lot of what was beautiful about it is still relevant for a Classicist.
It didn’t really change my views, or make me doubt why I like the things I like. It’s not that sort of book. But seeing the emotional portrayal of Mahit’s struggle with the two feelings, and sympathising with her so deeply… I felt very seen and understood by the book, and it made me love it all the more. Obviously one can’t read too much into what an author is like as a person from what they write in fiction, but it was very easy to imagine a feeling of connection to the author as well as the character, an understanding of something both loved and criticised simultaneously.
And I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that did this for me before.
Which isn’t to say it wouldn’t resonate for a non-Classicist/Byzantinist. The ideas about imperialism are far more universal than just the world it draws its inspiration from, and ones articulated without any sort of gentleness or care for bruised feelings. Martine makes absolutely plain the human and cultural cost of that kind of domination, and it’s a theme that anyone with awareness about the world and its history can easily connect to. It’s a theme that makes plain what SF can be for, too. We write new worlds not just to escape to, but to write large the problems of now, the solutions of tomorrow, to imagine worlds where something hard to see is made obvious, or inverted or expanded or taken to its end conclusion. We imagine the world we have now, but different, and use it as a lesson or a wish or a warning; it’s a book impossible to read without connecting it to bigger things than a simple story. And that’s part of what SF is for – to make those connections, to make us see more, think more, wonder more and maybe, just maybe, understand something better than we did before.
It got a perfect score on Goodreads from me, and I fervently hope I can get other people to read it too, because it really is a masterclass on what SF should be doing. My only criticism of it is that it now means I’m conflicted about who should be winning the big SFF prizes next year… if Leckie had only published The Raven Tower in 2018, my life would have been much simpler.