In this science fiction novel which won the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel, Mahit Dzmare, 26, finds herself unexpectedly appointed the new Ambassador sent to the Teixcalaan Empire from her home on Lsel Station, an artificial mining construct with at most 30,000 inhabitants. Thus the vast capital city, heart of the Teixcalaanli Empire, seems astounding to her. It is open to the sky (unlike her own satellite world), with a large diverse population and a byzantine political structure. Summoned suddenly with no word from the current-serving ambassador, she had little time for preparation.
Although there is an Emperor – His Imperial Majesty Six Direction – he is 84 and has no biological offspring. Mahit quickly gets embroiled in the struggles for succession without any idea what is going on or how the factions are aligned. Understanding quickly is critical for her; her predecessor, Yskander Aghavn, was apparently murdered.
Ordinarily, Mahit could expect guidance from an implanted imago, a record of Yskander’s memories and patterns of thought. Imagos were developed on Lsel Station to preserve skill and memory down through subsequent generations, and it was thought by those on Lsel Station that no one else in the Empire was aware of their existence. Mahit, upon receiving her assignment, was quickly implanted with Yskander’s old imago – all that was available – but it was 15 years out of date. Moreover, it was malfunctioning, leaving her only with “the ghosts of neurochemical feelings that didn’t belong to her, and flashes of memory so vivid they were like living another life.” Was the imago’s malfunction a result of sabotage, and if so, why?
Mahit receives some help from her assigned cultural liaison in the capital, a woman named Three Seagrass, but she still feels overwhelmed, lonely, and like an outcast. She was “immersed in a culture-shocked numbness that she couldn’t see the edges of” and ached for friends she could trust. And there was also the matter that her life was clearly in danger.
Evaluation: The world-building in this space opera is very detailed and complex; the author assists by providing a glossary at the end of the book. While this story is clearly “science fiction” set in a very alien universe, the themes are universal and recognizable: quest for power, fear of death, and most of all, the desire for connection and belonging.
The rich imagination of the author and the poignancy of the story give readers plenty to think about even besides the mystery of Aghavn’s death and the occasional thriller aspects of the book. How do love and need tie us together, no matter who we are or where we are from? How does memory give life even to those who are gone?
Published by Tor, 2019