A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

A Desolation Called Peace was always going to be a tough sell for me, and there’s little chance I would have started reading it if it hadn’t been a Hugo finalist. I could see the virtues of its predecessor, A Memory Called Empire, but from the way that book ended I had the sense — the sinking feeling, really — that the next book would be “plucky ambassador and her girlfriend team up to save civilization.”

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

At the end of A Memory Called Empire, the mighty Teixcalaan Empire was gearing up for a major war against an unknown, non-human starfaring civilization. The beginning of A Desolation Called Peace finds one protagonist of the first book, Mahit Dzmare, back from the imperial capital and sulking in various small spaces on Lsel Station, the outpost of some thirty thousand people that is her home. Three Seagrass, another protagonist, has risen quickly in the imperial government, but it is larger than Lsel, and wheels turn slowly. She is a Third Secretary, which turns out to be just right to be the person to receive a message from the commander of the war fleet on a weekend when most of the ministry is away. She is low enough in the hierarchy to be on duty, high enough to decide that she has all the qualities the commander has requested, to assign herself the task, and to be on her way almost before the rest of the bureaucracy notices.

Three Seagrass’ route to the war takes her through Lsel Station, where she is determined to pick up Mahit — who is not quite her girlfriend yet but who is quite clearly going to be — and take her along. Mahit has meanwhile managed to get herself into considerable trouble with the leadership of Lsel, who are, after all, her bosses as she is the station’s ambassador. Three Seagrass arrives just in the nick of time, and at least two members of Lsel’s governing council make improbable decisions to let Mahit leave with the Teixcalaanli liaison. Maybe it turns out that they had subtle reasons for doing so, maybe it’s just me thinking the choice unlikely, but I saw those choices as the characters living in the author’s favor. Martine can’t tell the story she wants to while keeping these characters apart, and so they must be together.

Martine introduces two new people as viewpoint characters in A Desolation Called Peace. One is named Eight Antidote. He is the Emperor’s sole heir, and he is a precocious eleven. Martine shows some of his education, his occasional interactions with the Emperor, and how he is exploring his carefully circumscribed world. In the first part of the book, there are no other children in Eight Antidote’s world. The other viewpoint character is Nine Hibiscus, who has been promoted by the new Emperor to the rank of yaotlek, war commander of all the Empire’s fleets. The limitations of interstellar communication mean that she must command the theater of operations from the front, exposing her to the danger of the alien invasion. Martine portrays her as a different kind of Teixcalaanli commander, one who seeks to understand before shooting, one who is willing to try a clever solution rather than overwhelming force. Her troops love her. One of her advisers reminds her that this is a dangerous combination, and that the imperial court may have sent her to the war to go out in a blaze of glory.

Two big plot points caused me to stumble over A Memory Called Empire — that a station the size of San Marino could sustain all the things Martine gives it, and that an untried person of 25 would be trusted with sole responsibility for relations with the station’s imperial neighbor — and unfortunately A Desolation Called Peace keeps these two while introducing a third of its own. Martine sets up Nine Hibiscus as a clever, innovative, resourceful commander and then has her decide that the only thing she can do to fill her gaps in understanding the aliens is to send back to the capital for a diplomatic specialist, and then wait for months for the specialist to arrive, taking casualties all the while. That the specialist will of course turn out to be Three Seagrass and she will of course bring along the plucky ambassador is, for me, the unsweet icing on an untasty cake. Why don’t multiple fleets sent to deal with attacks by an unknown civilization have any contact specialists of their own? Why isn’t sending for a specialist only one of dozens of plans Nine Hibiscus is trying to figure out what is going on with the aliens? Why doesn’t she have lots of people, to borrow Andy Weir’s phrase, sciencing the shit out of their problem? I just didn’t buy that Nine Hibiscus and her team were as clever as all that — to the point that the imperial heir is studying one of her previous victories as an example of excellence — and then can only imagine one thing to do.

I think I might also have liked A Desolation Called Peace better if there had been a lot less of it. I compared A Memory Called Empire, Martine’s debut novel, favorably to Ursula K. Le Guin’s first novel, and I stand by that assessment. Le Guin‘s second, though, is a model of brevity and efficient storytelling compared to Martine’s second. As I wrote about Planet of Exile, “The book is only 100 pages … and yet it puts forward a coherent world, two and a half richly imagined human societies, and complex relationships among the people it introduces.” A hundred pages into A Desolation Called Peace, Martine has only just landed Three Seagrass onto Lsel Station, the author is still arranging the furniture for what the book is really about. At about twice the length of Le Guin’s book, with Mahit and Three Seagrass finally arriving at the fleet, I skipped forward five chapters (a bit more than another hundred pages) only to find that the fleet was still largely waiting on the contact specialist and the plucky ambassador to figure things out. At that point, I decided that for now I don’t care what happens to these people.

Skipping ahead also showed me that Mahit and Three Seagrass are definitely girlfriends by then. Why are they only major characters in A Desolation Called Peace who are part of a love story? I understand that Martine, like many (most?) of this year’s Hugo finalists in the top four fiction categories, wants to tell a queer romance. But in the parts of the book that I managed to finish, they are the only ones — with the partial exception of Yskander, who is now a part of Mahit anyway — who have a love life. This stands in marked contrast to, say, Light From Uncommon Stars, and serves to emphasize that A Desolation Called Peace is their book, and the universe bends around them. I think I liked the ending of A Memory Called Empire because someone other than the protagonists finally showed agency in a way that mattered. I grew tired of waiting for that to happen in A Desolation Called Peace, and so I set the book aside.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/08/27/a-desolation-called-peace-by-arkady-martine/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.