A Memory Called Empire is the sci-fi novel you need to make it to April


With pop culture facing two massive returns in April, one of the only recent novels epic enough to match it all is A Memory Called Empire.

When it comes to April in pop culture, it’s a one-two punch of Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame. Between the two, April is going to be epic. However, Game of Thrones doesn’t start until April 14, and Endgame doesn’t arrive until April 26. What’s someone in need of some big drama, twists and turns, and a little genre fiction to do? Try picking up A Memory Called Empire, out this week from Tor Books.

Mahit Dzmare is a new ambassador from a small space station sent to the center of the Teixcalaan Empire after her predecessor dies under mysterious circumstances. When she reaches the City — which should remind Star Wars fans of Coruscant for the trifecta of big pop culture references — things get even deeper.

Although Game of Thrones and Endgame are both ensemble pieces, Mahit is unquestionably the protagonist of A Memory Called Empire. She might remind you of Sansa Stark — fascinated by a world she doesn’t live in, not at first — but it’s more than that. She’s more mature at the start, but she still has a lot to learn. Moreover, the romance she develops over the course of the book is a slow, subtle burn, one that doesn’t pop out of nowhere.

But A Memory Called Empire has much more time to develop its storylines and worldbuilding, with payoffs sprinkled throughout. It’s a slow burn at the start, to be fair, but most novels of this type take a while. Author Arkady Martine certainly has a lot to do with sprinkling new words and explaining Teixcalaanli culture, but she does enough to make it feel that this culture really is rounded out — down to building a culture that’s based on references to works of literature and history. Even though we haven’t read those works, we can get the gist of them, and that speaks to cleverness in construction.

Even though it’s an epic novel, Martine keeps this first novel in what appears to be a series constrained and focused. There’s a looming threat — no spoilers, but it exists and plays a part — but this first book is all about solving the mystery of why Mahit’s even there in the first place, which is as political as you think it is. Here’s why that’s a positive: it doesn’t go too big too soon. The novel is big enough without revealing everything; we understand the empire enough to understand that threat in a more rounded light. In that way, it really does resemble Game of Thrones — just with fewer dragons and more spaceships.

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It’s certainly an adjustment of a novel — Martine is committed to having a weird civilization, down to naming conventions that result in characters like Three Seagrass — but it shows a lot of promise for the future, and it’s certainly long enough to keep you engaged.