Mahit Dzmare is the new new ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire. The problem is, her predecessor is dead, and that’s the least of her worries. She hails from Lsel, a space station and trader with the Empire. Lsel lives in constant fear of annexation, and sent the original ambassador to stave off any desires Teixcallan has of adding Lsel to their pile. But first Mahit needs to find out what happened to her predecessor and ingratiate herself with the people of Teixcalaan.
Let’s start with the world-building here, as it is quite unique. There isn’t a whole lot about Mahit’s home, but their technology is quite impressive. They have created an “imago,” a device that attaches to the spinal cord and records every incidence of a person’s life, in particular their skills. This is useful when one lives in deep space. Instead of rookie pilots, an imago of a dead pilot is attached and all their skills and knowledge is shared. The added value is one can have lines of pilots dating back 20 generations. This is kept secret from other cultures though, especially Teixcalaan, who claim such devices are immoral, but would likely jump at the opportunity to get their hands on one. Mahit’s problem is that while she has an imago of her predecessor, it’s fifteen years old as he hasn’t returned in that time period, and there was no opportunity to record a newer one. Now Mahit must manoeuver her way through complex Teixcalaan politics (and it is complex), with nothing but some outdated information as a guide.
The Teixcalaan homeworld where she must go is a planet wide city (a more attractive version of Coruscant), where the people consider themselves a step above the “barbarians” from the outerworlds. The city is run by a singular AI which controls much of daily life, while the inhabitants seem to be focused on either politics or poetry, both of which play a major role in the story. Mahit has trained her whole life to be here, but she still feels out of her depth while trying to make any headway on her mission. Luckily she has a liason, Three Seagrass, who helps her negotiate the shark-infested political waters, and their developing relationship is one of the strengths of the book.
That’s basically it in a nutshell, but there is a lot more to the book than I could possible bang out in 500 or so words. I really enjoyed it. It’s rather different to almost anything else you will read, with little actual action, but instead plenty of wordplay and political machination. I bet you will not see the ending coming. Be warned though, it is quite a slow burn, and I feel like I spent an inordinate amount time reading it (and checking the definitions of words relating to poetry). If you want a quick read, look elsewhere. If you want a slow but satisfying science-fiction-politically-driven-murder-mystery-with-some-cool-tech, then this could be the book for you.

4 out of 5 stars

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