Book review: A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

It’s often challenging to keep a sequel as interesting and engrossing as the first book in the series.  The wonder of worldbuilding may be largely gone, and the tedium of more of the same may creep in, as the author tries to keep the fans of the first book interested.  Adding enough novelty, yet continuing the same narrative, can be a very delicate balancing act, which Martine performs perfectly and delivers a sequel that is just as good as its predecessor.

After the upheaval in the Teixcalaanli empire dies down and the new Emperor sits firmly on her throne, the Lsel Station Ambassador Mahit Dzmare returns home for a short respite, and her former imperial guide, Three Seagrass, becomes an undersecretary at the Information Ministry.  Neither are too happy at their posts, however, especially not Mahit, who is now facing the prospect of dismemberment and complete eradication, as some of the Station’s councilors see her as having converted to the imperial culture, and thus becoming a threat to the Station’s sovereignty.  Three, on the other hand, just goes through her daily motions as a top bureaucrat, missing the excitement of her time with Mahit.

At that time, the Imperial space armada finally meets the alien threat that destroys entire planets.  After a few skirmishes that threaten the morale of the imperial troops, they intercept communication from the enemy, and the fleet captain, Nine Hibiscus, requests a translator from the Information Ministry to help establish first contact with the aliens and open a line of communication.  Three Seagrass is the first to receive that request and immediately assigns herself to the task.  On the way to the battlefield, she swings by Lsel Station and requests that Mahit joins her. Mahit, only days away from the operating table where she’d be killed, readily agrees and the two get on the way to the fleet flagship.

Once there, they sample the intercepted message to remix it into something they hope is an invitation to negotiations.  To everyone’s surprise, this works, and the aliens agree to meet the two on a planet.  However, not everyone is happy that the shooting war turned into peace negotiations.  One of Nine’s ship captains has instructions to keep the war going for as long as possible, and she tries to sabotage the peace negotiations.  She also requests that the War Ministry gives her permission to carpet-bomb one of the alien planets with nuclear weapons, and the Ministry agrees.

During this time, Eight Antidote, the imperial heir, cuts his teeth on palace politics back in the capital.  He learns about the request, and that the acting Emperor agreed to it.  Finding the act reprehensible, Eight goes on his own clandestine quest to intercept the order and issue his own, to continue the negotiations.  At the last critical moment, he succeeds.  At roughly the same time, Nine’s assistant, also part to the negotiations, finds out that the aliens have been in a symbiotic relationship with a fungus, which grows inside them and grants them hive mind.  He ingests some of the fungus, joins the alien minds and convinces the aliens to stop attacking and instead negotiate with the Empire.

Following up a Hugo-awarded novel with another without any loss of quality is quite a feat.  Martine managed it by creating an entirely new story in a whole new setting, while keeping the same characters, albeit in a different mental state, which leads to unexpected, but refreshing results.  In the first book, Mahit is essentially a child lost in a big city, and the only person she has to rely on, Three, is a decadent and spoiled youth, who may or may not be a spy.  In this book, both have matured.  Mahit is in space, more of her element, and she comes across as the mature voice of reason.  Three still acts seemingly childishly and recklessly, but it’s all a very carefully calculated behavior to elicit the desired reactions from other parties.  The interactions of the two of them with their environment are entirely different than in the first book.  They have far more agency, and they actively direct the narrative.

The protagonists’ agency is actually quite an interesting element in this story.  Mahit feels like she is being swept away by outside forces and resents it so much that at one point she has a falling-out with Three.  In fact, she is very well able to direct her action, both on a macro and micro level, to the point where she nearly sidelines Three as the more important of the two translators attached to the fleet.  Mahit’s feeling is, I believe, a small correction from the first book in the series, A Memory Called Empire.  In that book’s dedication, the author hinted at cultural assimilation of outsiders by large societies.  However, this element was almost lost in the first novel.  Here, the author seems to be going overboard with insinuations that Mahit feels drawn into the Teixcalaanli society.  In addition to feeling powerless to refuse when called upon by the Emperor, she reminisces on how she wanted to be an imperial citizen during her formative years, and how even now she acts more like one than real citizens.  This creates perhaps the strongest bond between the two books, and also explains Mahit’s actions and those of her predecessor in the first part of the series.

Even more than in the first novel, Mahit spends considerable time inside her own mind, conversing with the mental image of the previous Ambassador, Yskandr.  This is to be expected, as the first book revolved around the disappearance of Yskandr’s imprint, and now Mahit has full access to him.  This makes the book even more introspective than its predecessor, and it may alienate some readers.  Despite its subject matter, the narrative offers very little of action, and instead focuses on people’s reactions to the action.

The lack of action is possibly the only thing I may fault the book for.  I don’t mind philosophical books, but not at the expense of plausibility.  This may be an ethereal concept in science fiction, but the more things stay grounded in reality, the easier it is for me to suspend disbelief.  In this book, for example, the fleets are able to maneuver within entire galactic sectors in matters of hours, with instant communication between them.  It’s frustrating that the speed of movement is not explained, given that faster-than-light travel is generally achieved here via wormholes.  More egregiously, though, the speed at which Mahit and Three manage to decipher the alien language and establish rudimentary communication beggars belief.  They spend several hours analyzing transmissions, and at the end of the session they create their own alien sentence based on their assumptions, which not only turns correct, but also leads to very quick learning sessions of new words from the aliens.

On a personal level, I could understand these shortcuts, but it did tear me out of the book’s immersion and made me think of other books.  The one I kept returning to was Forever War by Joe Haldeman.  That book could not be more different from Martine’s novel, but they have one thing in common: space war due to the lack of communication between species.  In Haldeman’s book, the aliens were also a hive mind, and for both belligerents it has been inconceivable to communicate with one another.  Martine’s book is elegantly offering a micro-level solution to Haldeman’s macro war, and I’m not all that mad that she took some ridiculously expansive shortcuts.

Ultimately, this book is about interpersonal relationships and even more than the first book, about finding one’s place in the world.  It is far more important that Mahit finds a mental and physical place where she’d be happy without sacrificing her integrity, that the heir to the empire Eight Antidote forms his own personality and eventually becomes his own man on the throne, that Three Seagrass learns her place and stops manipulating others to her benefit, and that even minor characters are content with decisions that threaten their own honor.  The alien menace, war and even politics seem to be secondary.  Once I realized this, the novel became far more entertaining, and I stopped feeling so frustrated with things that didn’t make sense to me.

All in all, I truly enjoyed A Desolation Called Peace, and was very pleasantly surprised at how well its author replicated the quality of the first book.  The characters are incredibly well developed, have their own plausible personal growth and interact as normal people would.  The few hints of action, which push the plot along, are largely barebones and undeveloped, but once the reader dismisses them and focuses only on the protagonists, the book becomes insightful, but also fun.  Every fan of the first installment should pick this one up for something slightly different, yet familiar enough to continue showcasing the impressive personal growth of the two main characters.

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