I enjoyed reading this book very much (a 4,5 * read for me) but can’t say that I would blindly recommend it to any reader. Or more precisely, I know that I wouldn’t recommend it to all science-fiction readers while I would recommend it to some other kind of readers, those who appreciate some kind of literate, subtil, slow, detailed stories (like Guy Gavriel Kay maybe, and of course Ann Leckie’s books).
One of the aspects which sounded somewhat of key for me was that the story could easily have been a fantasy one. The SF tonality was rather weak, the sense of wonder muffled. The story would have needed very little adjustments to be transposed to a fantasy world, where it would have been even more credible, in my point of view. Magic instead of science would have been fine. Probably because the only futuristic differences explained, exposed, were about biology and weren’t that convincing (these books with this sort of developments should be seriously proofed by someone with some kind of medical expertise). For instance, the author speaks about cancer two or three times; I can’t believe that a medicine so much advanced as to have mastered « imago machines » (neurological very sophisticated devices) wouldn’t have cured cancer since a long time ago! (Very weird references about coffee, mugs and microwave too, but I’m being petty there). Another example: in a certain situation (won’t spoil so fuzzy sorry) one character is left alone for hours, which is handy for the narrative as she has to do something in secret, but is absolutely inconceivable in the circonstances – she could have died! Her friends were just waiting in the next room, which is not believable for a second.
Well, enough quibbling. Just keep in mind that the story may holds a lovely fantasy tone under the science-fiction promised context for some kind of readers.
The other reluctance that I may have about recommending this book is a point that didn’t annoyed me, just prevented the read to be a page-turner: the atmosphere is tense, even dramatic, most of the time, the heroine is living historical and dangerous times, but the narration is slow. A lot of attention is given to small details, to psychological interpretations, with great meticulousness. The contrast between the narrative tone and the atmosphere (which is striking) is rather unsettling.
Another point that the reader must know before choosing this book, is that a great part of the book is dedicated to the Teixcalaanli culture, its love of literature, especially poetry. Poetry holds a tremendous place, is used to describe one sentiments or a building or to give sub-context to a discussion (the Teixcalaan learn quantities of poetry by heart), to make political statements, to encode some messages, etc. It gives a lot of charm to the story but could tire some readers waiting for some classic action.
The whole atmosphere is great however. I loved the very strong and personal voice of the author via the heroine’s, Mahit. The world is carefully woven, with plenty of specific details, which gives a very vivid picture.
The story is a political one but also a very personal one. It depicts with great care and strong authenticity the emotions of enthusiastic and ambitious young persons, cultivated and intellectual, aspiring to eminent political careers. We see how they love to discuss, to recite poetry, to be part of important decisions, and feel their complicity and enthusiasm. The theme is universal. It perfectly shows the difference between theory and pratique, about speaking and debating about politics and been thrown into a revolution, a civil war.
The story is also quite pregnant with a poignant fact: Mahit is head over heels in love with Teixcalaan’s culture, has learned the langage (quite different, hers has an alphabet and Teixcalaan’s has ideogrammes) and is quite bilingual. She’s also au fait of many customs and subtleties, she knows how to keep the proper behaviour, especially about facial expressions (Teixcalaan don’t smile by showing their teeth, but by opening their eyes wide, etc.) or even when to use her barbarian’s manners to unsettle someone. She also supposed to have many memories of her predecessor thanks to her imago, which will give her all the necessary informations about everything and everybody.
Alas, she’s not a true Teixcalaan and will never be one. Because of her very different physique (so tall, with pale skin and auburn hair) but also because she hasn’t grown up here. She’s from the Station, from a Barbarian world, and hasn’t benefited from the unequalled avantages of lifelong immersion. She knows it, frequently muses about it, and suffers when she compares her (yet spectacular) capacities with her new Teixcalaan acquaintances’ ones.
I really think that this particular side of the story will appeal to people who loved a langage, a culture, as all the readers who read in English even though it’s not their native langage (my case) or people who dream to live abroad, in a country with a different langage and so many different ways.
To finish with another positive argument, the plot is good and clever. All that seems rather foggy clears up nicely in the end!
A series I’ll be happy to read on.
(I thank Netgalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for sending me the ARC in exchange for my honest review)