Top positive review
Over hyped, but not bad
Reviewed in the United States on April 5, 2019
Every year there are a couple dozen speculative fiction/scifi novels that are promoted as 'the next thing' and pushed as if they were the second coming. Of those, with luck, a small handful will actually turn out to be decent reads. Just as an example of hype efforts, when I wrote this review there were 24 reviews posted for this book, only four were verified purchases, the others, I assume were free/promotional copies. ReviewMeta, a site for checking the veracity of reviews, failed the overall review with a Warn in these four categories: Unverified Purchases, Incentivized Reviews, Phrase Repetition, and Overlapping Review History and and a Fail in the Suspicious Reviewers category.
A couple of centuries ago I was in a club to catch the 'band of the moment'. The PR machine had been promoting them overtime and in the last few minutes before they took the stage the joint was electric with anticipation. The place was packed, all the cool kids were there, and when the first guitar riffs rolled across the crowd it was electric. Several songs in I realized they weren't really that good. Looking back I realize they weren't bad, but the 'next thing' they were not. I never really forgave the band after that, I felt betrayed, but the hype machine was just doing its job even if that meant setting unrealistic expectations that were almost impossible for the band to meet. Loading down Arkady Martine's credible debut effort with that level of expectation is almost certainly setting her and us readers up for a fall.
Rant is over, now on to the review. In the far future a small space station on the fringes of a large empire that threatens their independence, receives word that the station's ambassador to the empire has died and a replacement is requested ASAP. A young, just out of school, graduate is picked for the job. The empire is an ancient one with a depth of culture that (purposely) overawes the small surrounding cultures into feeling like uncultured rustics. Mahit, the new appointee is thoroughly versed in the ins and out of the poetic language and culture that exhibits so much intimidating depth that many of the best and brightest of the surrounding powers dream of being able to go and live what is overwhelmingly considered the seat of civilized society. Mahit shares that dream and nurses a serious inferiority complex throughout the book that interferes with her desire to serve her home. Upon arrival at the capital she finds out that the previous ambassador was almost certainly assassinated, she makes friends, suffers through a couple of assassination attempts upon her own life, and is quickly embroiled in escalating civil insurrection aimed at overthrowing the emperor and installing a contender from one of the several rival factions. To add to that complexity, plans are being made by the empire to invade her home station and attach it to the empire. Circumstances gradually move our heroine from the fringes of the action closer and closer to the very center of the whirlpool that threatens to pull in her, her home, friends, and the whole of the empire. Well drawn appealing characters, especially Mahit and her imperial liaison, Three Seagrass, combined with smooth writing, excellent world building, usually sharp dialogue (minus occasional regressions), and with only vague writing on the infrequent action sequences hindering this excellent read. I look forward to Ms. Martine's next book.