A Desolation Called Peace
By Arkady Martine
I received an ARC of A Desolation Called Peace from Macmillan-Tor/Forge in exchange for an honest review.
When I finished reading A Desolation Called Peace, I thought of something Bilbo says in The Fellowship of the Ring: “I feel thin. Sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” Martine’s follow-up to her stellar debut, A Memory Called Empire, is an ambitious book. I hesitate to say too ambitious, because I would much rather read an ambitious failure than an unambitious success, but Desolation may truly be too ambitious. It goes broad where Memory went deep, and as a result characters, plotlines, and themes are left un- or under-developed.
A Desolation Called Peace feels bigger than A Memory Called Empire, for better and for worse. Not only does Desolation span more physical space, but it features more POV characters. I am sad to say that I was far less interested in Mahit and Three Seagrass this time around, and I frequently found myself skimming their sections. More engaging is Desolation’s major new character, yaotlek Nine Hibiscus, and the supporting players in her story: Twenty Cicada and Sixteen Moonrise. I likely would have enjoyed this book much more if it had spent more time in the POV of Nine Hibiscus and less (or even none) in the POVs of Mahit and Three Seagrass.
But it is eleven-year-old Eight Antidote who steals this book. Not only is he the most dynamic character with the most organic emotional growth, but it is in his POV that Martine’s writing truly shines: his narration features a higher frequency of comma splices and run-on sentences, which captures with delightful precision the way children actually talk. Eight Antidote’s POV also supplies the reader with an occasional dose of Desolation’s best secondary and tertiary scene-stealers, such as Eleven Laurel, Three Azimuth, and the Emperor Herself, Nineteen Adze.
(Like, for example, Anomander Rake in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, Nineteen Adze maintains her mystique because Martine wisely keeps her at a distance. She remains my favorite character in this series—although she has fierce competition from Twenty Cicada and Eight Antidote in Desolation—and if the Nineteen Adze novella Martine has mentioned comes to pass, Tor can consider the payment for it pre-deducted from my bank account.)
I have several minor quibbles with Desolation. A pivotal plot twist is not foreshadowed, at least not that I noticed, and it comes too late in the book to be properly developed despite being the thematic crux of the story. Major plot threads which were left dangling at the end of Memory are ignored or casually dismissed, whereas major plot threads in Desolation are wrapped up in a tidy bow; it feels neither realistic nor satisfying. I also continue to be annoyed by some of the writing quirks which prevented me from fully falling in love with Memory, particularly the lengthy paragraphs and incessant use of italics to emphasize things which do not need to be emphasized.
A Desolation Called Peace ultimately left me conflicted and a shade disappointed. All the ingredients of great storytelling are here, but they weren’t baked properly. I was bored by Mahit and Three Seagrass and frustrated by the number of plotlines, both from Memory and Desolation, which were either abandoned or resolved too quickly and too neatly. But I loved spending more time in the world of Teixcalaan and with the characters, old and new, who make this book shine—Nine Hibiscus, Twenty Cicada, Eight Antidote, Three Azimuth, and Nineteen Adze, among others. And I can’t fault Martine for playing it safe, because Desolation doesn’t: they miss more often than they hit, but this is a novel chock-full of wild swings, bold ideas, and rich thematic material. It gives up the crisp, clean mystery of A Memory Called Empire in exchange for something sprawling and messy. That said, I am still overall positive on A Desolation Called Peace and am looking forward to what Arkady Martine, already a titan of worldbuilding and one of the most inimitable authors of speculative fiction working today, brings us next.
(I’m ready for something non-Teixcalaan, but give me that Nineteen Adze novella first.)
Review by Erin Larson
A Desolation Called Peace will be published March 2nd, 2021.