Review: A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE by Arkady Martine

Publisher: Tor Books
Page Count: 496
Release Date: March 2nd, 2021
Series: TEIXCALAAN, Book 2
Rating: 4/5 Stars – Really Liked It

Note: I was given a free ARC of the book by the publisher in exchange for my fair and honest review.

Warning: Light spoilers ahead for book one in the series. Haven’t read it? You can read a review here: A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE

After solving her predecessor’s murder, averting a coup, and using diplomatic technicalities to dissuade the conquest of her people, Ambassador Mahit Dzmare has returned home to Lsel Station. But being home doesn’t make Mahit’s life any easier; she knows if any of the Councilors that lead the station discover her defective imago machine, that it allows her to communicate with her predecessor’s thoughts instead of simply melding his memories into hers as intended, she’ll be benched – or worse. So when Three Seagrass shows up requisitioning Mahit’s services, she’s almost relieved at the chance to leave. But Three Seagrass is dragging Mahit to the frontlines of a war with an unknown alien enemy, one that doesn’t communicate in any kind of language Mahit knows. Mahit and Three Seagrass have a limited window to find a way to communicate and negotiate a peace before political pressures from the heart of the Teixcalaan Empire force the Fleet Commander Nine Hibiscus to wage the kind of war that leaves entire planets a desolate wasteland.

I’ll make this simple: If you enjoyed A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE, you’re going to enjoy A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE. It’s the kind of space opera that’s full of conflicting agendas and unknown dangers, where the government ministers back home can be just as dangerous as the aliens firing on your ship. While Mahit and Three Seagrass hope to find a way to stop the war, there are multiple factions who have their own agendas, and Mahit and Three Seagrass feel the ripple effects of those factions, even if those they never interact directly with. It’s a chain reaction political drama, with multiple storylines affecting each other from across the galaxy.

Mahit and Three Seagrass return as POVs in A DESOLATION CALLED EMPIRE, and I especially appreciated how Three Seagrass’s sections were handled. Although Three Seagrass has fallen in love with Mahit, she mentally keeps caveating some of of Mahit’s accomplishments with turns of phrases like “for a barbarian.” It’s the kind of subtle trap a person raised in an elitist and racist empire can fall into without realizing it. She looks down on Mahit without being consciously aware of it, and the book forces her to confront that awful reality. Nobody is perfect, but you can’t fix your flaws if you aren’t even aware you have them.

Joining Mahit and Three Seagrass are new POVs Nine Hibiscus, leader of the forces engaged in fighting the unknown alien enemy, and Eight Antidote, the eleven-year-old heir to the throne. Nine Hibiscus is a woman who would love nothing more than to smash her enemy into a thousand pieces, but she’s also aware enough of political situations to know that there’s something fishy about how the war is being handled. I enjoyed her chapters a lot as she tries to lead while navigating the politics within her own fleet. Meanwhile Eight Antidote provides insight into the political situation at the heart of the empire. As Eight Antidote sits in on meetings for his own edification, he also struggles to understand the political agendas of the different government leaders, including of the current Emperor Regent who’s raising him.

As with the last book, the importance of language in reflecting a culture’s values is woven into the overall story. But language takes a bit of a step back to contemplate war. What sacrifices are acceptable to preserve a people, or simply a way of life? Can you justify stoking the flames of war if it leaves your neighbor weaker and unable to attack you? But for all its philosophizing, A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE doesn’t sacrifice pace or action, deftly weaving its thoughtfulness into the story.

I do have one complaint about A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE, and that’s that things fall into place at the end just a little too neatly. Different people come to the same realizations about the nature of the alien at nearly the same time, despite being on opposite ends of the galaxy and with different data in front of them. In the grand scheme of the book, it’s a small flaw and didn’t hamper the otherwise delightful time I had.

A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE is an absolutely fantastic follow up to A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE. The political machinations ricochet off each other from across the galaxy. It’s mesmerizing (and somewhat disconcerting) watching a handful of people trying to divert a catastrophe so that it happens in a way that is most beneficial to them, while another handful of people try to stop the catastrophe from happening at all. Martine has penned another contemplative-yet-never-slow space opera. The ending leaves a tantalizing hook for another installment, and I hope to see another book in this world in the future!

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