While Arkady Martine’s fabulous, Hugo Award winning, space opera debut A Memory Called Empire had a satisfactory ending there was clearly more story to tell. For a start, a potential alien threat on the boundaries of the Teixcalaan Empire, a new Emperor on the throne following a revolt that saw the old emperor die and the return of Ambassador Mahit Dzmare to the sort-of independent station of Lsel and into the hands of those who set her up to fail. All of these questions are answered, not in ways that could necessarily be expected in the sequel A Desolation Called Peace.
When the book opens the aliens lurking on the edges of Teixcalaan space have come out of the shadows. A battalion of warships have been sent to both investigate and engage the enemy. But they find a whole planetary colony wiped out and a dangerous enemy that they cannot communicate with. Their request for assistance with making contact with the aliens is picked up by Three Seagrass who takes it on herself to go to the front and not only that, to stop at Lsel Station and pick up Mahit Dzmare on her way. But Mahit has troubles of her own, a pawn of warring councillors, trying to find out who sabotaged her imago (the memories of the previous ambassador that she was to carry) while being threatened with having it ripped out of her. Desperate she joins Three Seagrass and heads to the front where the two throw themselves into understanding the alien threat. At the same time there is politics galore happening both within the battlegroup and back on the Teixcalaan home world.
While Dzmare is ostensibly the ‘protagonist’, Martine tells her story through a number of unique points of view. Each of these characters have their own arc and allows Martine to set up multiple mini-cliffhangers. Once again she draws all of these together slowly and carefully into a page turning finale in which the soul of the Empire is at stake. Living up to the promise of good space opera, this volume does have space battles involving fleets of fighters and energy weapons. But as readers might have come to expect, the solutions to problems come from negotiation, understanding and more than a little political nous.
A Desolation Called Peace lives up to the promise of its predecessor. A completely different book with very different concerns, it expands the universe and ups the pressure on the main characters while continuing the political manoeuvrings established in the first book. And it continues to ask the big questions about consciousness, humanity and civilisation, although this time not only in terms of apparent civilisation versus perceived barbarism but humanity against a type of intelligence that it clearly not human.
As with its predecessor, Martine manages to wrap up all of the main plot threads and relationships and provide a satisfying conclusion. But there are plenty or fascinating characters and some dangling threads that could be picked up in a third book. Given the strength of the first two, another entry in this series would not be unwelcome.