Hugo Nominee Review: A Desolation Called Peace – Arkady Martine

This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.

Overview of A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine from the back of the book: “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 an envoy. Now Mahit Dzamare and Three Seagrass – still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire – face an impossible task. For how can they communicate with a hostile alien entity? Their failure would guarantee millions of deaths and an endless war. Their success might prevent Teixcalaan’s destruction – and allow the Empire to continue its rapacious expansion. Or success might lead to something far stranger.”

World-building: 5/5
I adored the first book in this duology; probably the best thing I read last year. Much of the world-building is a continuation of that, so it’s difficult to judge this one on its own merit. I found the descriptions a bit less awe-inspiring than A Memory Called Empire, but much of that is the difference between a city-scape and a lot of ship-board scenes. However, the almost effortless space opera atmosphere, with the jumpgates, the relentless presence of the Teixcalaan empire, and the overwhelming otherness of the aliens was spectacular. While the first book felt more poetic, the emphasis on language, communication, and how to establish true dialogue was no less genius.

Characters: 5/5
Mahit and Three Seagrass are just as wonderful as in the first book. I’m glad we get the overlap but I’m most excited about the addition of Eight Antidote (what a great name) and the two new main characters in the Fleet. Arkady has a way of getting us into their thoughts, even when they’re not POV characters, that highlights the intrigue and cultural exchange of the text. I was particularly glad for the addition of Twenty Cicada, who represents the breadth of the Empire, both with his personality and religion, but also with how he interacts with those around him and the aliens.

Narrative Pace/Structure: 5/5
On a second read, this one is much faster than the first book. Perhaps it was because Memory had to establish the world/city/empire and so the entire narrative took a ways longer to get going, but somehow the pace worked better here. I’m not sure I quite buy how easily Eight Antidote was able to convince a Shard pilot and a messenger of what he needed from them, but I’m willing to gloss over that for how well Arkady manages to intertwine all of her story-lines without them even being in the same sectors of space.

Overall: 5/5
The first time I read this duology, I liked this book but didn’t think it quite stacked up to the first one. Now, I think this one is just as good. To distinguish between minds and memory, to hold in tension the sheer desire to belong to an alien place while attempting to maintain some sense of identity, and to play so subtly with the ideas of collective vs individual is the work of a master storyteller. I’m in awe of what Arkady has done here and if it were up to me, I’d hand this book the Hugo right now, just like the first one won it two years ago.

Other 2022 Hugo Nominee Reviews:
Hugo Nominee Review # 1: A Master of Djinn
Hugo Nominee Review # 2: She Who Became the Sun
Hugo Nominee Review # 3: Light From Uncommon Stars
Hugo Nominee Review # 4: Project Hail Mary
Hugo Nominee Review # 5: the galaxy, and the ground within
Hugo Nominee Review # 6: A Desolation Called Peace

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