I am grateful that Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace came my way at the end of 2020 instead of during the middle, when I had a full case of Quarantine Brain™. Some authors write books suited to QB: undemanding, fun, predictable, and about as interesting as chocolate pudding. Martine is almost the exact opposite, in the best way possible. Almost every word feels like it has weight, and it’s almost impossible to predict where her starry empire will take the reader.
“”What is it made of?” Three Seagrass asked, and then drank it before he could answer her. It tasted like salt. Like–alcoholic salt, and oceans. There weren’t any oceans here. It was fascinating, and also awful, and she was never, ever drinking it again.”
A Desolation Called Peace follows up on the events of A Memory Called Empire. Mahit has returned to Lsel Station, and Three Seagrass is working for the Emperor’s Information Ministry. These two share the narrative with two new characters: Eight Antidote, an eleven year-old who happens to be the former Emperor’s clone and current heir; and Nine Hibiscus, the leader of the squadron seeking to discover what’s been eating ships at the edge of ‘civilization,’ right by Lsel Station.
“Mahit had done fine without her on Lsel, had missed her only as much as she’d missed Teixcalaan, which was enormously and with aching frustration.”
As each narrative develops, they slowly begin to intertwine. The plotting felt both well done and largely organic. Early on in the story, Nine Hibiscus engages the aliens and her story has an active tension to it. Marit’s conflict is more emotionally insidious and challenging, as she and her imago, Yskandr try to negotiate their way back into Lsel life. Eight Antidote’s narrative is an intriguing counterpoint to the adults; his voice is clear, usually not wrought with emotion, and his role as student helps the reader orient themselves to the complexities of the situations and conflicts as well: “He’d have to remember not to make it, when he was Emperor. Loyalty wasn’t transitive. It didn’t move up and down the chain of command smoothly. It could get cut off, or rerouted. Especially if someone else powerful was intervening in the movement of information.”
It explores cultural identity, communication, treason, first contact, war crimes, the nature of memory and identity, the nature of experience and self, and love between people of different cultures. And it does this without long, wall o’texts that make readers’ eyes start to roll back in their heads. It does it in beautiful, evocative ways, with action and emotion. To say, I ‘liked it’ is an understatement: it was one of the best books I read in 2020. It’s definitely earned a spot on my bookshelf.
“And he could figure out the rest later. He wasn’t stupid. He read all kinds of poems.”
A note on story order: The story was meant to be told as a duology, so it might be worth trying to read them both reasonably close together. Should you read the first before the second? Yes. Can you get by without it? Probably, but you are going to miss out on some of the complex cultural and interpersonal dynamics of the characters that make the story so rich.
Many thanks to NetGalley and Tor Publicity for an advance e-book for review. The book is scheduled for release on March 2021. Quotes are subject to change and only included to give a flavor of the evocative and lovely writing.
Even more thanks are due to Nataliya and Elena, buddy readers extraordinaire, particularly for help with creation of our dramatis personae.