This book is science fiction, a space opera, and the follow up to the successful, Hugo-award-winning predecessor A Memory Called Empire. I found the sequel to be an easier read, as most of the world-building was accomplished in the previous book. The plot was predictable, but the world it runs through is full of brain food to the point of overwhelming. There are complex politics, uncertain relationships, questions about the true meaning of words and language, questions about identity, questions about foreigners and what it means to be alien, and oh, just questions about everything. It is an adventure filled with beauty and is also a spectacularly thought-consuming mess.
If you know what you are looking for, you can feel the Roman/Byzantine flavor everywhere, but it is not forced, and I am not sure if a casual observer would really notice. The Empire feels as realistic as any sci-fi empire. In many ways it is much more realistic. Most contemporary empires, like Star Wars,are totalitarian and dominating because evil in a strongly post-colonialism, post-Naziism perspective. Here, the Empire dominates through the power of its culture, spreading with poetry as much as with the force of its legions.
The culture of the Empire does not lend itself to creating simple people. Every character is a complex person filled with conflicts and doubt. I think I would have been very impressed with the creation of the characters except for the fact that every character seems to just too neatly serve the plot. It feels rather stressful, any supporting characters otherwise are faceless. Can’t I just relax and be human for a minute in this universe? Maybe this is intentional. Everyone is a puppet for the narrative that is the Empire.
Overall, it was a good read, but I didn’t find it satisfying. The complexity of the world leaves open questions dangling everywhere. This is realism, such that I can almost feel myself living and working in this world. I might even go so far as to say this world is the exact opposite of the world in my beloved Murderbot sci-fi series, although it tackles many of the same questions.
I read this book at the wrong time. It was stressful in an already stressful time. This book is better read when you are feeling complacent, as I think it will do a great job of stirring up thoughts and discussions.