A Desolation Called Peace
By Arkady Martine
Tor Books — March 2021
ISBN: 9781250186461 — Hardcover — 496 pp.
I considered A Memory Called Empire, the first book in Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, to be among my top reads in 2019, if not the best. Along with reviewing it on Skiffy & Fanty, I also went out of my way to recommend it to as many people I could that might read science fiction. At least two got back to me after the fact to thank me, explaining they really enjoyed it as well. The novel subsequently deservedly won the Hugo Award. If this recent space opera series from Tor hasn’t been on your radar, or if it’s languished in your TBR pile, I encourage you to pick it up tout de suite.
Martine followed up that stunning debut with A Desolation Called Peace last year, a novel that is every bit as engaging and successful as its predecessor. It enriches the series with continued exploration of politics and culture at the level of individuals and empire, and then further dives into speculations of a first contact scenario. Though this novel offers a satisfying closure to the series as a duology, it clearly could be expanded into more volumes featuring its ‘universe’. I fervently hope that this would be the case, particularly if Martine uses such an expansion to tackle other classical themes of space opera that she hasn’t touched yet, or uses it to explore completely novel themes that the genre might allow.
A Desolation Called Peace picks up mere months after the conclusion of the first volume. Teixcalaanli Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is dispatched to confront the alien armada that has appeared at the edges of known space. The aliens have destroyed a colony and she finds no way to effectively combat them or communicate with the mysterious beings. In a desperate attempt to break this impasse and the growing threat of destruction, Nine Hibiscus requests a first contact communication envoy from the Information Ministry, Three Seagrass. While secretly smuggling herself to the frontlines, Three Seagrass recruits the aid of Mahit Dzmare, the Lsel ambassador to the Empire, thereby saving her former associate, and friend, from the political fallout on Lsel Station from the events of the first novel. Together, the two forge an even stronger relationship, making contact with the aliens. With the help of Nine Hibiscus’s loyal adjutant Twenty Cicada, they unlock the first steps of comprehending their alien enemy and how to effectively communicate back with them. However, rebellion within the fleet (set in motion by elements in the Empire set on influencing young Emperor heir Eight Antidote) risk subverting the progress they make.
All of the rich examination of colonialism, culture, and individuality from the first novel carry on into the second. This specifically holds true within the realms of language and communication, which of course now aren’t just interrogated through the Teixcalaanli Empire – Colonized Lsel divide, but also with the mysterious aliens. These aliens are more ‘Other’ than the “Barbarian” people who exist outside the Empire, distinct not only in culture, but in biology and psychology. The aliens exist with a hive, shared consciousness that passes on through generations, without the individuality or concept of ‘death’ that humans would have. This concept is not remotely new to space opera, but Martine employs it in a fascinating way by contrasting it with the rest of the world building she established since the first book.
The main, and secondary, characters of A Desolation Called Peace are as splendidly drawn as in the first novel, and the further burgeoning relationship between Three Seagrass and Mahit is a pleasure to read and see develop. However, Twenty Cicada, notably shines as a bit of a break-out star in the novel. Martine gives him a captivating backstory and spiritual outlook that wonderfully sets him apart from so much of what drives the other characters we’ve met.
These are novels that I know I will happily return to and reread sometime in the years to come, but I also look forward to anything else Martine writes, in this Teixcalaan universe, or elsewhere.