I’d seen glowing reviews for this book – and when someone compared Martine’s writing to that of C.J. Cherryh, then I had to get hold of it. It has languished on my TBR list for longer than it should have, so I’m very glad to finally read it. I have linked this review to #Sci Fi Month 2020.
BLURB: Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court. Now, Mahit must discover the truth about her predecessor’s death, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.
REVIEW: I can see the similarity with Cherryh’s dynamic. Mahit is flung into the middle of a tense, potentially deadly situation, where not only her own fate, but the fate of all those she cares about is at stake. She has no one who she can confide in, or trust – for the one source of support that was provided proves to be unreliable in a way that utterly compromises her. So she is conflicted and frightened, while dealing with a sophisticated group of people who immediately patronise and belittle her, simply because she isn’t one of them.
I absolutely loved it. This is science fiction at its beguiling best. A different culture, which is far more alien to Mahit, brought up on a space station, than she had ever imagined, even though she has spent most of her life preparing for this. I loved her character and how we were alongside her and in her thoughts. It would have been so easy to get the pacing wrong – either speed up the action so that there wasn’t time for her reactions to the unfolding sequence of events. Or to allow the story to stutter as Mahit’s thoughts and fears prevailed at the expense of the narrative.
The worldbuilding is beautifully handled. Mahit’s culture shock at the difference in surroundings, the clothing and food, is visceral. And I also very much enjoyed the cast of supporting characters, particularly the wonderful Three Seagrass, who is Mahit’s cultural aide. I found this one difficult to put down as the situation continued to grow in intensity and complexity – to the extent that I was afraid the conclusion would be something of an anti-climax. It wasn’t. The final denouement was both unexpected and surprising – and completely satisfying.
This immersive, memorable read won’t be for all sci fi fans. While plenty goes on, it is interspersed with periods of reflection by Mahit as to the possible consequences, in the manner of C.J. Cherryh. However, I adore this form of writing and am very much looking forward to reading the second half of this duology in 2021. Highly recommended for those who enjoy this form of story-telling.