TITLE: A Desolation Called Peace (Teixaclaan #2)
AUTHOR: Arkady Martine
GENRE: Science Fiction
PUBLISHED: March 2, 2021
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
This is the second book in a series. As such, there may be spoilers for the first book, though there are no spoilers for the book being reviewed. Please read the first book before reading this review.
First contact stories are a mainstay in science fiction – indeed, for those who aren’t immersed in the genre, it’s probably the one that is most immediately recognizable as scifi. It has also remained remarkably popular over the years: from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to the blockbuster films of the twenty-first century, first contact stories still hold a great deal of appeal. Which, of course, begs the question: why?
I suppose part of the reason is the desire to believe that humans are not the only sentient species in the universe. Humans are social creatures; reaching out and building connections is part of what makes us who we are. And as our species began to look beyond the confines of our planet and realized there was so much else beyond it, we naturally wondered if there were others out there who, like us, were staring into the great void and asking the same questions we were. One sees this in films like Arrival, which is based on Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life, and Contact, which is based on the Carl Sagan novel of the same name. In both movies (and their respective source materials), humanity reaches out to communicate with entities from elsewhere in the vast black, seeking to know, to understand – to connect.
Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace, the second book in the Teixcalaan series, is, at its core, focused on that desire to connect. After the tumultuous events of the first novel, Mahit Dzmare has returned to Lsel Station, trying to find a semblance of normalcy after everything that has happened and everything she’s done. But her actions in Teixcalaan come back to haunt her when Three Seagrass, her liaison during her brief time as Lsel Ambassador, comes over to bring her to Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus, who has been assigned to deal with the alien threat Mahit warned Teixaclaan about when she was last in the City.
However, the novel does not open with any of the familiar characters. Instead, it opens with a Prelude told from the point of view of the aliens themselves:
To think—not language. To not think language. To think, we, and not have a tongue-sound or cry for its crystalline depths. To have discarded tongue-sounds where they are unsuitable. To think as a person and not as a wantful voice, not as a blank-eyed hungering beast, not as a child thinks, with only its own self and the cries of its mouth for company. …
These bodies, singing in the we, singing together of the flesh of bodies who are not we but have built starflyers and energy cannon. Bodies who are meat and cannot sing! Bodies who think language, who cry with their mouths and leak water from their eyes, who are clawless but vicious in their own hunger to reach out. Who have touched so much of the void-home already, and dwell in it, and have come so very close to the jumpgates behind which are all of our blood-homes, new and old. …
The first thing that the reader will realize is that these aliens are very much not the “humans in rubber suits” kinds of aliens one might see in shows and films like Star Wars and Star Trek. The way these particular aliens think of language and individual identity is clearly very different from the way humans think of those things–and, in a way, threatening, especially if the reader is coming directly off the first novel, where language plays such a vital role.
But in opening the novel with the aliens, instead of with Mahit or Three Seagrass or even with Nine Hibiscus, the author does something very interesting. Most first contact stories begin with the characters the storyteller wants the reader or viewer to sympathize with the most – and usually, that means the humans. Instead, by opening the novel with the aliens and putting the reader “in their heads”, so to speak, alters the reader’s perspective of these aliens. Instead of viewing them as an unknowable disaster waiting to explode upon Lsel Station and the Teixcalaan Empire, the reader must instead view them as misunderstood, but without diminishing their potential as a threat. These aliens are, well, alien, but it is still possible to sympathize with their fear of something they don’t understand (because they do not understand humans any more than humans understand them), and their desire to protect their homes from something they perceive as a threat.
This won’t be the last time the reader has to step into the aliens’ shoes, though, because there are other chapters throughout the novel that do the same thing: a good reminder, in my opinion, because after the prelude the focus is back on the Teixcalaanli and Stationer characters the reader might find more relatable than strange aliens, and those characters might not be inclined to view the aliens in a sympathetic light.
Which brings us to the four narrators of the novel: Mahit Dzmare, Three Seagrass, Eight Antidote, and Nine Hibiscus. The reader will be familiar with Mahit, of course, but the other three are less familiar: Nine Hibiscus because she is entirely new, and Three Seagrass and Eight Antidote because they haven’t really been narrators up until this point.
Of these three new narrators, the first one the reader meets is Nine Hibiscus. She is portrayed as an exceptional example of the Teixcalaanli military, with notable (if somewhat controversial) honors under her belt – honors which are supposedly why she’s been made Fleet Captain for this war (though it is, of course, more complicated than that). In some ways, the military leader sent to confront the alien threat is a stock character in a lot of first contact stories, but unlike some of the more hawkish types seen in those stories (and even in this one), Nine Hibiscus is more deliberate, more circumspect. Even when other military leaders around her insist that she attack the aliens, she doesn’t do so right away because she is unwilling to send people into the maw of an enemy she doesn’t understand. This is an aspect of her character that I find absolutely fascinating, and a delight to read. She does not charge in half-cocked, and has a care for the people who she sends out against the enemy. This doesn’t mean, of course, that she doesn’t act if she has to; she does, and she often does so decisively. But every decision is deliberate, made with careful consideration and input from people she trusts. It’s refreshing to read about a military leader who does such things.
Eight Antidote is an equally interesting character. I admit that I rarely have patience for preteen and teenage characters (which is why I’ve largely steered clear of young adult novels except those written by very specific authors), but Eight Antidote is engaging to read about. While his character serves a very specific function (tying the reader back to the politics and machinations in the heart of the Empire), he is also just a child trying to navigate a complex and complicated world, while also trying to decide what kind of leader he will become. He understands, after all, that once he becomes Emperor he will be in a position to shape the Empire in his own image, and he is trying to figure out what that image will be. Eight Antidote’s questions about who he is and who he will become, and how those will shape the destiny of an entire empire, are intriguing not only because of how they will potentially shape his character further down the line, but also because of how it comments upon Teixcalaanli culture as a whole.
I also like to think that Eight Antidote’s age allows him to ask these questions as plainly as he does, because he can see things more clearly and with less of the obfuscating layers of nuance that adults, but especially Teixcalaanli adults, tend to see everything through. An adult, after all, would have more complex and more complicated questions and answers, while Eight Antidote is able to perceive and ask and learn these things in a more straightforward manner, cutting to the heart of things in a way an adult might have difficulty doing, if they can do so at all.
Three Seagrass’ portrayal was not quite what I expected, but I still find it interesting. She is portrayed as impulsive and a bit more manic than I remember her being in the first book – but then, the reader is seeing her through Mahit’s eyes. Her personality is implied in the way Ten Azalea interacts with her in the first novel, but it’s only in this novel that the reader gets a more complete sense of who Three Seagrass really is because this is the first time she’s actually functioning as a narrator. And as I have said, while the portrayal is surprising, it’s also quite intriguing, since she functions as something of a foil to Mahit, who strikes me now as more taciturn than I remember her being – or at least, more taciturn as seen through Three Seagrass’ eyes. After all, since Mahit was the sole narrator of the first novel, the reader is privy to all of her thoughts and feelings; it’s not made clear how the other characters might perceive her in turn. Of course, Mahit’s taciturnity might be a result of the events in the first novel and not so much a quality inherent to her, but it’s interesting to see the contrast nevertheless.
While each of these narrators, and Mahit herself, have their own, individual storylines and concerns, they all come together in a manner that is wonderfully coherent and lucid. This, despite jumping back and forth between the warfront and the Empire (for Eight Antidote’s storyline), and navigating the novel’s primary first contact story vis-a-vis the more personal subplots, such as Nine Hibiscus’ political intrigues with others in her fleet, and of course Mahit and Three Seagrass’s relationship, which is a continuation of what happened in the previous novel. It is to the author’s immense credit that she switches between points-of-view, narrators, locations, and plotlines without losing the story’s overall forward momentum or losing the reader at any point.
This is not to say the plot is completely predictable, because it isn’t. Rather, when plot twists happen (and they do), they do not come completely out of left field, as it were. Instead, the foreshadowing is done in such a manner that they do not completely spoil the twists, but instead lay down the logic for them. I have read books wherein plot twists were foreshadowed too much and therefore spoiled, or foreshadowed too little and therefore did not make any logical sense when I encountered them in the story. This novel manages to ride the fine line between the two, and I am delighted that it manages to do so very well.
While the four aforementioned characters might be said to be the novel’s protagonists, there is actually a fifth protagonist in this novel, one that might not be immediately obvious to the reader: language. Unlike the aliens, who in the Prelude make it clear that language is for “blank-eyed hungering beasts” and for children, our species believes language is what makes us who we are. We use it not only to convey, but to comprehend, to make sense of everything within and without ourselves. The problem, though, is that oftentimes language cannot even begin to encompass the things we try to use it to represent. “Love” is the easiest example. Most people know what it feels like, are familiar with its range and subtleties, and we each have our own, unique experience of it. But we have such a hard time putting it into words. Artists, philosophers, writers, even scientists: they have all tried to describe that four-letter word, and none of them have got it quite right. It’s all approximation.
This is even trickier when attempting to do translation. If language is a matter of approximating emotions and ideas in the hopes that one will be understood, then translation is attempting to render an approximation into another approximation, which is guaranteed to be imperfect because most languages are not one-to-one equivalents of each other. Add on to this further complicating factors such as culture and personal history, and, well— One can see the quagmire, I am sure. Seen in this light, it seems almost unsurprising that we as a species are constantly at each other’s throats; we barely make sense to each other, even when we try.
But that’s the thing: we still try. It hurts, of course; we cannot perfectly convey what we think and feel to each other, so we leave ourselves open to not being seen as we wish to be seen, to not being understood as we wish to be understood. That is painful. But we still try regardless, try to fill in the gaps until we reach a point where it’s possible to understand – not perfectly, but close. It’s why so much of art and literature and philosophy and, yes, science, exists at all: because we all have something about ourselves – an idea or an emotion – that we want everyone else to understand. The novel frames it thusly:
Language is not so transparent, but we are sometimes known, even so. If we are lucky.
“If we are lucky” indeed. Sometimes we are. Sometimes we aren’t. But we try anyway, try to make ourselves understood to others – and to understand others, in turn. And when the desire to understand and to be understood in turn is genuine, borne from a true desire to comprehend, a connection occurs. If language is what makes us human, then to know another, and to be known by another, that moment connection, is one of the greatest accomplishments of our species.
Overall, A Desolation Called Peace is an incredible continuation of the story begun in A Memory Called Empire. While it overtly seems like a completely different novel from its predecessor, in fact it builds upon the themes and concerns of the first novel: in particular, the idea of connection and communication. While language is a clumsy tool for such comprehension, it matters that we keep trying to reach out to others, keep risking the pain of being misunderstood and imperfectly comprehended, on the chance that we get lucky, and are known. That chance, no matter how small, is worth it, but we need to work at it, to be open to the opportunity to reach out and understand another, for it is only when we do so that we, as individuals and as a species, are at our best.