So Many Ways to be People: A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

Posted 26th February 2021 by Siavahda in Queer Lit, Reviews, Sci-Fi Reviews / 1 Comment

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

A Desolation Called Peace (Teixcalaan, #2) by Arkady Martine
Representation: Cast of Colour, F/F or wlw, sapphic MC
on 2nd March 2021
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.


~kittens in the vents
~indie comics
~aliens that are really definitely Not Human At All
~bored at work??? sign up for First Contact!
~sneaky imperial heirs
~Disruptive Persons

I think it was really stupid of me to request an arc of A Desolation Called Peace. I clearly did not think it through, because I did not realise that after reading an arc I would have to review it, and how on earth – or off it! – do you talk about Arkady Martine’s writing? The English language fails me utterly. I want the holographic drawing board Mahit and Three Seagrass use with the aliens so I can try and just draw my feelings, instead of needing to use words.

I would draw fireworks and exclamation points and a book made of stars, and I would draw them all REALLY BIG, and just maybe I might be able to make you understand a fragment of how amazing this book is.

It’s not – not exactly – the story that makes it special. On a superficial level, this is a first-contact story, and if I sketched out Act One and Act Two and so on for you it might sound – familiar. Recognisable. The shape of it is something we’ve seen before. We know how to hold it in our hands, in our heads.

But Martine has taken this shape we know, and opened it up for us like a geode, and there is just so much inside. Beneath the surface. The shape is familiar but what’s inside it isn’t, and what’s inside it is so beautiful and deep and raw and true. There are so many layers. There are so many facets, and each one is real and each one is different and no one can see them all.

(Except us, because we’re reading this story and not living it. Because Martine shows us each one, carefully, pointing each one out with gentle subtlety so we won’t miss it.)

Even more so than the previous book, A Memory of Empire, this installment, A Desolation Called Peace, is about different ways of being a person. Empire was heavily concerned with the struggle of coming from a colonised culture (or a culture under threat of colonisation), and the difficulty of loving, admiring, wanting to be one of the colonisers. And that’s still here in Peace, because Mahit is still here and that is something she’s probably always going to struggle with.

Maybe it would be better to put it like this: Empire asked, what is a human? The Teixcalaanli divide between human and barbarian – aka, anyone who is not of Teixcalaan – is an intrinsic aspect of Teixcalaanli culture, and therefore was always going to be a major part of Empire‘s story.

But A Desolation Called Peace is asking something even bigger. Here, Martine asks: what is a person?

The most obvious example of this is the first-contact aspect of the story, the introduction of absolutely-very-definitely-not-human aliens: beings who have a very different culture, a very different understanding of personhood, than any of the human cultures we’ve yet met in this series. But this isn’t the only example Martine asks the reader to think about. Another, touched on in the previous book, is the concept of imago-lines, the Lsel Station tradition (tradition does not seem like the right word, but I’m not sure what a better one would be) whereby the memories and personality of a predecessor are implanted into a new, adult person, with the goal of the old and new personalities merging and no knowledge or experience ever being lost. Is Yskander, Mahit’s imago, a person? What does it mean if he is; what does it mean if he’s not? What does that make Mahit? What does that make the end-goal Mahit, who is a product of her original self and Yskander? All of which is incredibly disturbing to the handful of Teixcalaanli who know about the imago technology.

What about the Shards, the space equivalent of fighter-jet pilots, who can, thanks to new technology, communicate in ways that both aids and cripples them in battle? What about the Sunlit, the Teixcalaanli police we met in Empire, who are created (or run?) by a similar technology?

What about Eight Antidote, the Imperial Heir who is only eleven years old? We caught a glimpse or two of him in the previous book, but here, he’s not only a PoV character but a major one, albeit one most of the other characters aren’t aware of. And I do think the question – what is a person? – applies to him as well. Far too many people – adults – dismiss the opinions and feelings of children. Children are often treated as though they are not real people, not really people yet. In fact, there are fascinating parallels to be drawn between the aliens’ ideas of personhood – of the process of becoming a person, and therefore their view of their young – and the way human children are treated, and I wish I could write an essay about that but it would involve far too many spoilers.

My point is, carefully woven into the breathtakingly beautiful prose and the emotions and the urgency and the nuclear option – woven throughout that is the quiet question: what is a person? And you don’t have to think about it if you don’t want to! A reader could simply sit down and enjoy Peace as an epic sci fi novel, one with aliens and spaceships and a do we kill them or will they kill us? plotline. Martine does not demand that you answer – try and answer – the question this book poses. It is allowed, and it is easy, to let yourself to be entertained, to be sucked in to this incredible galaxy wrought out of stunning prose and an incredible imagination. If you want to sink into a story as you would a warm bath, you absolutely can do that with this book.

(Although not if you haven’t read the first book first. Sorry. That’s non-negotiable).

But you can also let Martine’s hands cover yours…and show you how to break open the shape you know, and see the geode inside.

You know. If that’s your thing.

A Desolation of Peace is out next Tuesday, March 2nd!


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