• The Good: Intricate and provocative world-building
  • The Bad: Serviceable mystery plot and political intrigue
  • The Literary: A society obsessed with poetry about buildings

Expectant and hopeful for her first time on the central planet of the Teixcalaanli empire, Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives to find that her predecessor has died under suspicious circumstances. She’s trained all her adult life for tenure on Teixcalaani, but with the threat of political instability at hand and no one explaining her predecessor’s death, she fears she is in danger.

This is a typical fish out of water story, with a stranger from a tiny space station transported to in the capitol of a huge empire, as she navigates a complex culture of politics and poetry in the hopes that she will save her station from Teixcalaan’s expansion. But she must discover what happened to the previous ambassador and who is behind the murder. On top of it all, she’s carrying around the consciousness of all her predecessor’s memories in her head with the help of a brain implant forbidden on Teixcalaan.

The murder-mystery plot is fine, but mostly serves to add a sense of tension upon Mahit’s arrival. The political intrigue is better, but I’m a hard sell in general for political in my fiction.

What really shines is the world building. With names like Teixcaalan and ezuazuacat, it’s no secret that the world has Aztec influences. The naming conventions—Mahit’s sidekicks are Three Seagrass and Twelve Azalea—are only initially distracting until your brain accepts them as normal. The culture’s obsessions with flowers, poetry, and sacrifice oddly seem to fit in a society with strict aristocratic hierarchy in a city that runs on its own algorithms.

Mahit is a barbarian, and everyone knows it by her size, her accent, and the way she smiles with her mouth instead of with her eyes. She’s been obsessed with Teixcalaani culture since she was a little girl, never feeling quite at home on her own world. She still remembers the day she found a word that described exactly how she feels, in a language not her own. Now that Mahit is on the planet of her dreams, walking the line between two cultures is difficult, fun to watch, and easy to identify with.

The memory implant, or imago machine, is the technology over which both cultures clash. Mahit has all the memories of her predecessors in her head. In fact she can talk to them, and sometimes its unclear whether her emotions are her own. One of the great aspects of scifi is the exploration of technology, not just the science, but how it affects politics, relationships, and identity, and this book does it well.

Recommended for fans of scifi in the vein of Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee.