• The Good: Intricate and provocative world-building
  • The Bad: Slow pace for such a long story
  • The Literary: A society obsessed with poetry about buildings

For once, the Teixcalaanli Empire turns its eyes outward when alien forces massacre an industrial colony and position an armada on the edge of the empire. Fleet Admiral Nine Hibiscus cannot destroy them, and their technology and biology is so alien they cannot understand each other. Informational Ministry specialist Three Seagrass convinces her former associate Mahit Dzmare to help her attempt to communicate with the inscrutable enemy.

This sequel is the followup to the 2020 Hugo Award winner A Memory Called Empire, in which Mahit becomes an ambassador for her home planet Lsel to the Teixcalaanli, whose culture and language she’s loved since she was a little girl. I love that Mahit loves Teixcalaanli poetry and language, but when she finally arrives to the place where she’s always felt more like home, she’s treated like a barbarian. In A Desolation Called Peace, Mahit’s relationship with her home world is strained further when a world leader asks to her try and prolong the Empire’s war the aliens so as to weaken them, in hopes that Lsel will remain independent.

With the new threat, the Empire slows it’s conquests and colonialism, as it encounters for the first time what a more powerful enemy could do to its own worlds. Science fiction’s treatment of aliens has always helped redefine in-group boundaries, but I like that this story adds several internal struggles. The smaller worlds like Lsel that fear being colonized by the Teixcalaanli (although the Teixcalaanli would not define themselves as colonizers) may politically benefit from the new alien presence, and they seem to have no qualms about all the Teixcalaanli lives lost. In addition, the internal struggle to launch a full out retaliative attack or try to communicate with the aliens requires ongoing negotiations and secret interventions, eventually including the emperor’s twelve-year-old heir and clone Eight Antidote.

There’s a lot going on in these books, the world-building is great, and the stakes are high, and I’m happy the sequel is nominated for this years’ Hugo. They’re erudite and original. There’s something about this series that doesn’t quite grab me though. The POV switching slows the momentum of this already dense and extensive book. Maybe I’m tired of reading about memory imprints, hive minds, and mushrooms, though the sections about linguistics hold me rapt.

Highly recommended for fans of intelligent space opera scifi!