Stars: 5 out of 5
First, a necessary disclosure: this is book 2 of a duology, so I would strongly recommend reading book 1 (which I reviewed here) before you jump into this one. Can you read it as a stand alone? Probably… but you will miss out on a lot of context and dramatic events that brought our characters to where they are in this book.
The story picks up two months after the end of the first book. Lsel Station got what they wanted – the Teixcalaan Empire is now at war with the mysterious aliens that had been disappearing their ships in the darkness of the void. Mahit is back on Lsel, but the place she grew up in doesn’t feel like home anymore, especially with the secret she is carrying about the sabotage of her imago machine and the unorthodox method she used to repair it.
And back in the City, the new Emperor is now forced to win a war she didn’t want, while also fighting the clock and dagger fights with officials of different departments that didn’t particularly want her on the throne… like the ministry of War, who she needs to fight this war instead of her.
We get to follow some of the characters that we came to know and love from the first book, like Mahit and Three Seagrass, who end up in the middle of the action once again, trying to find a common ground with an alien species so different that they don’t even have a language per se and who don’t consider individual deaths as anything of consequence.
We are also introduced to new characters, some of which we briefly saw in the first book, like Eleven Antidote, the 90% clone of the late Emperor. I must admit that I absolutely loved his POV in this book. He is eleven years old, but he is not a typical child. He’s been brought up and educated as a clone of the Emperor, so he never had a real childhood. He is also very smart and precautious, and he likes to think things through and solve mysteries. And I loved the courage and determination he showed when he acted to right what he was convinced was a wrong, even though he was going against the orders or the current Emperor by doing so.
Another wonderful new character is Twelve Cicada, who is the second in command to Nine Hibiscus, the fleet commander charged with wining the war against an enemy who can appear in and out of subspace and spit a substance that dissolves ships along with the pilots. I loved the relationship between these two and how they complemented and tempered each other. And I found highly satisfying the fact that Twelve Cicada was the one to find a solution to this conflict in the end.
This book touches several important themes. What exactly is the price of civilization and isolationism? Can you be a person even though you aren’t “civilized” in the eyes of your opponent? To Teixacaalisim, everyone else is a barbarian, including other humans, so the encounter with something even more alien has them unsettled and unable to react properly.
Who are you in the end as an individual, when your home station feels like hostile environment, but the Empire you longed to belong to all your life threatens to swallow you whole and kill your individuality? That is the question Mahit grapples with in this book.
And finally, is destroying a whole planet a price an Emperor is willing to pay to maybe end a conflict before it becomes a war of attrition? Or is that an act too atrocious even for Teixcalaan? What legacy do you want to leave for your descendants? That’s the problem Eleven Antidote grapples with.
There are multiple layers in this book, so it’s hard to address them all without spoilers. My advice is, read this duology. Go by the first book and read that while you wait on the second one to come out in March 2021.
PS: I received an advanced copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.