The History Behind the Character Names in ‘A Memory Called Empire’

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan Book 1) by [Arkady Martine]

This is a book that has been sitting in my TBR pile for quite a while now and truthfully I am not done reading it, but the naming conventions interested me so much I decided to look into them a bit and write this post.

The book follows the new ambassador from Lsel Station, Mahit Dzmire, as she arrives at the imperial court of the Teixcalaanli Empire. Her first priority? Finding out what happened to her deceased predecessor. That’s enough context for now.

What I really want to talk about are the names of the characters from the Teixcalaanli Empire. The first one we meet is named Three Seagrass and we are soon introduced to many others like Nine Maize, Ninteen Adze, Six Direction, Fifteen Engine, Thirty Larkspur, and so many others. Luckily, we see all this through the eyes of a character who is new to the culture and her assigned cultural liaison is able to provide some context. In short, all names consist of a number and a noun. Parents then use certain customs such as a belief that low single digits are good luck to decide on the name of their child. It’s further implied that the noun used in their name may sometimes reflect what is important to daily life in their place of birth.

So far that’s all that’s been explained so far, it’s possible that more will come later in the book but I am impatient so I decided to do some digging. To begin, I started out looking for the historical inspiration that Arkady Martine most likely drew from in crafting the Teixcalaanli Empire. If your instinct was to think “mesoamerican” then congratulations, you and I think a lot alike.

I began in the place where all research begins, Wikipedia. There I found an account of the Mixtec king Eight Deer Jaguar Claw, or 8 Deer for short, who was the only Mixtex king to ever unit them all under one banner. The Mixtecs were later conquered in the 16th century by the Spanish and there are about 800,000 Mixtec still living in Mexico today.

Map showing the region covered by the Mixtec civilization. Imaged sourced from Wikipedia.

So that was a good start and it gave me what I needed to look a little further. As it turns out, the basis for Mixtec names came from the calendar that they used, with individuals being named after the day they were born. So Eight Deer would have been named after the day on which he was born. There are thirteen days and twenty symbols on this calendar. Eventually, I found this site which offers much more context on Mixtec names and mesoamerican culture in general.

Basically, the day a person was born would be their name as we already established, and the individual may then add to their name or change it later in life. The day a person was born was believed to reflect their future including their profession, personality, and even spouse.

So that’s the basis of names used in Arkadi Martine’s A Memory Called Empire. It’s a great bit of worldbuilding on Martine’s part. It makes complete sense that after several millennia parents would stop using the literal date to name their children and instead name them based on their hopes for their child’s future. Depending on how involved Martine chooses to get with the names later in the book, a character’s name could say a lot about what their family expects of them.

I’m not finished reading this book, but my initial impressions are nothing but positive. I really like the worldbuilding based in mesoamerican culture and can’t wait to see other ways in which that history and culture is incorporated.

Have you read A Memory Called Empire? What did you think? Did you find any good resources to learn about the historical inspirations for Arkady’s worldbuilding? Let me know in the comments!

The Seventh Son

Fury of the Seventh Son: The Last Apprentice, Book 13

The other day I decided to try watching a movie that I had forgot exist and I would strongly argue should not exist; Seventh Son. It’s a movie starring Jeff Bridges and others loosely based on The Spook’s Apprentice by Joseph Delaney. Also called The Last Apprentice by us Americans. The books series holds a special place in my heart, I devoured the books in middle and high school and remain a fan to this day. The world of The Last Apprentice is wonderfully constructed. And after all these years I finally read the final book in the series, Furry of the Seventh Son.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. Ten years later I don’t find the books anywhere near as scary as I used to, which is to be expected. But the plot and the worldbuilding are still exemplary.

The best-written part of the series is the protagonist, Tom Ward, he is so incredibly annoying. He is stupid at times, he makes the wrong decisions all the time, but he still does his best. That’s probably the best part of the series. Because at many times throughout the series he keeps things from his master, The Spook, for various reasons, in nearly every instance it turns out that he should have been honest from the beginning. Yes, The Spook doesn’t want to compromise his morals for the greater good, but also Tom never tried to make the case for that option. Because as much as this series highlights the difference between light and dark, but when it comes down to individuals there are a lot of shades of grey.

The Spook, over the course of the series, eventually makes compromises for the greater good. But I think he could have reached that point and a lot of evil could have been averted if Tom had just spoken up and shared what he knows.

But’s that’s one of the great things about this series. Tom was doing the same thing that you or I probably would have done. It’s very easy to say what the right thing to do is, it’s another to actually do it. You and I would probably not do the smart thing if we were in Tom’s shoes.

But I will tell you what the right thing to do is. Read the books. Don’t see the movie. It’s bad. Read the books, you will be glad that you did. While this is certainly a YA series, the story and worldbuilding are hard to beat.

The Last Watch: A Novel Of The Divide by J.S. Dewes

The Last Watch (The Divide Series Book 1) by [J. S. Dewes]

This book first came to my attention thanks to a “Big Idea” post on John Scalzi’s blog Whatever. In that post, Dewes explained that the original inspiration for the book came from a single line sung by Johnny Cash in the song “Highwayman.”

“I’ll fly a starship across the universe divide.”

That instantly hooked me because like Dewes I’ve listened to that song many times and thought that there must be a story somewhere in that line. Turns out Dewes found it.

The Last Watch follows a group of Sentinels, soldiers sent to stand guard at the edge of the universe as a punishment. That’s how Adequin got there at least. The other POV character, Cavalon, was once the heir-apparent to one of humanity’s royal houses, THE royal house in fact, or as close to this universe has to one. Forcing him to enlist in the Sentinels was a convenient way to get rid of him.

In a way, both Cavalon and Adequin are out of place in their current posting and are in conflict with each other. At the start, Adequin is trying to beat Cavalon into an acceptable soldier and Cavalon is just trying to be…Cavalon? He really wants to be better he just can’t seem to keep his mouth shut.

Both of them will learn a lot by the end of the book. They accomplish a lot too. In this book, Dewes manages to tell a small story with large implications. I think that’s a skill. We are so used to protagonists with outsized importance. The characters that Dewes created do have a great deal of importance, but they have also been completely relegated to the edges of society. And I mean it when I say edges.

The book’s back cover promised an existential threat that only the Sentinels could avert. It didn’t disappoint. There are a lot of ideas in this book coupled to a lot of fun. The dialogue is great, the ideas are better, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the second book. You should go read it. Right now.

Dan Simmons’ Mystery Box

Mystery can be a great driver of plot and a trap at the same time. J.J Abrams is notorious for using this strategy in Lost and blowing it at the end. The problem is if you set up some huge mystery at the beginning of a narrative you better have a satisfying answer to the mystery by the end. Or do you?

I would argue that you don’t. If you do it right.

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, Book 1) by [Dan Simmons]

If you have a great answer to the mystery you present to your audience at the beginning then by all means share it, but if you do you better make sure you are very confident in the answer. Your audience will not thank you if your answer fails to live up to their expectations. Remember how disappointed Spongebob was to find out Patrick has just spent the entire episode hiding the string in his secret box?

I am here to argue that sometimes it’s best to leave mysteries unsolved. There is both terror and wonder in the unknown, that’s part of being human, there’s no reason the stories we tell shouldn’t reflect that.

I am using Dan Simmons as an example here because his 1989 science fiction novel “Hyperion” is fantastic. It’s the kind of “genre fiction” that gets literature snobs to lower their barriers. But I think it would have been better if Simmons had never written a sequel. Let me explain.

Hyperion, unsurprisingly, centers around the planet Hyperion. A planet at the edge of known space, one that is not incorporated into the network of gates that allow instantaneous travel between worlds.

Traveling to Hyperion means sacrificing a great deal of time and accepting a certain amount of risk. Many accept this because Hyperion is a planet of mysteries. It is one of the labyrinthine worlds, worlds with great labyrinths constructed by unknown aliens. It is also home to the Shrike and the Time Tombs. Both have been sent back in time for an unknown purpose.

shallow focus photography of gray concrete building
Photo by Sebastian Palomino on Pexels.com

One group of humans, the Shrike Church, believe that the Shrike is a punishment for humanity’s sins and traveling willingly on pilgrimages to Hyperion where most of them will be killed in various horrible ways by the Shrike. It’s strange how the bishops never go themselves, isn’t it?

The protagonists of Hyperion have all been selected for what will probably be the last Shrike pilgrimage. At the start of the book, it is stated that the Time Tombs are opening and that a group of transhumans called Ousters are about to attack the planet. There’s not much hope that the planet will hold out either. None of them are members of the Shrike Church, none of them know exactly why they were selected, all of them have their own reasons for accepting the missions.

The book is a futuristic retelling of the Canterbury Tales. In between chapters that narrate their journey to the planet and their attempts to determine who among them might be a spy, they each share their stories about what led them to accept their place on the pilgrimage.

Through their stories and their motivations, Simmons explores imperialism, artistic integrity, betrayal, love, artificial intelligence, technological reincarnation, fatherhood, and many more themes. In some ways, the book is also a love letter to John Keats.

In the end, despite their differences, they joined hands and walked to their fate. Then the book ends. The series should have ended there too.

photo of people near wooden table
Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

Instead, Simmons continued to write in this universe, which eventually became the Hyperion Cantos. The second book, The Fall of Hyperion, wasn’t that bad. It largely follows an artificial reincarnation of John Keats and much of the book’s events are told through his experiences. But we also see the POVs of the characters from the first novel. This is where the problem arises.

In writing the second novel Simmons had to explain all of the questions that arose in the first. In doing so he brings up a lot of interesting ideas that were totally unprecedented in the first novel. So instead of leaving the mysteries of the first book as mysteries, he chose to answer them with time-traveling agents from the future and messianic powers that came out of nowhere.

The first book was an amazing opportunity to explore multiple stories at once, to get close to deeply flawed characters with mixed motivations for being where they are, and to see them accept the uncertain future in front of them. I think the series would have ended beautifully with just one book. Instead, Simmons decided to keep writing.

That’s not to say that I hated the second book. I enjoyed most of it. Just not as much. I think I would have enjoyed it more if some of the concepts introduced in the first actually mattered in the second. Powers that destroy the Shrike don’t bother me as long as we the readers were given reason to think they might be possible beforehand.

But we weren’t.

I keep looking at the third book on my shelf and I don’t know if I can convince myself to read it. Hyperion is a great book and if it was the only book of the Hyperion Cantos that you read it will likely remain a great book in your eyes. Because the answers provided in the later books simply don’t hold up to the questions posed by the first. If you haven’t read Hyperion yet then you definitely should, but consider skipping the books that follow.

How To Read More Books

Start listening to audiobooks.

There was a time when I looked down on people who liked audiobooks. I ignorantly thought listening to a book was somehow a lesser experience than reading the words on a page. I was so wrong.

I began with a few books that were gifted to me on Audible, and I was a near-immediate convert. I began with a re-read of Dune, and it reignited my love for the series. Then I started listening to the Great Courses, and I’ve found a whole new way to learn that I wasn’t aware of before. It didn’t take me long to get my own audible subscription, and since I have, the benefits have expanded. Not only do I get one credit each month to buy a new book, but I also get access to a whole library of audible books included with my subscription. I’ve searched for certain titles on multiple occasions and found that they were already included with my subscription. I really can’t recommend it enough.

Now, I’m not just recommending Audible because I will financially benefit if you sign up for a free trial. I think it’s a really great service. But I understand if you don’t want to support Amazon by supporting Audible. So for the rest of this post, I will focus on why you should give audiobooks a chance and a few examples of audiobooks I’ve especially enjoyed.

They’re Efficient

I know I’m not the only one who is busy. These days it’s hard for me to find the time to read a 1000 page doorstopper. As much as I love them, I just don’t have the time. Audiobooks have been a lifesaver in this segment of my literary experience. I can download an audiobook and listen to it while driving, while I’m doing chores, even while brushing my teeth in the morning. All the moments in my day where I turn my brain off while my body does something tedious, I listen to audiobooks. It’s allowed me to make those parts of my day infinitely more enjoyable while finally getting to experience the books I’ve always wanted to read.

They’re More Engaging

I tried to read American Gods on several occasions. I really did. I just couldn’t get into it. Then one day, I was browsing and found the full-cast recording of American Gods. Honestly, it was just better than the print version. A good narrator(s) can do so much to change and enhance the experience.

Recommended

Revelation Space – This is another one of those books that I would not have had time to read if I had gotten the text edition. The audiobook was over twenty hours long, and there are at least five books in the series. The narrator, John Lee, does a phenomenal job with voices. Overall the series is a great example of interstellar hard science fiction.

American Gods – This was a book I tried to read on several occasions and never got past the first chapter. For some reason, it just didn’t work. Then I downloaded the full-cast audiobook on a whim, and I blew through it. There are so many little stories inside the larger one, I know some people don’t like Shadow’s extended stay in Michigan, but that was one of my favorite segments of the book.

The Anatomy of Fascism – I often forget that Audible subscriptions come with a library of free audiobooks now. The Anatomy of Fascism, which I wrote about a few months ago, was one of those books. It’s a fascinating analysis of Hitler and Mussolini’s respective brands of fascism.

The Story of Human Language – This is one of the Great Courses offered on Audible, and I heartily recommended it. It’s a fascinating introduction to linguists and what it can tell us about our past.

Five Wonderfully Mundane Pieces of Star Wars Lore

The best thing about Star Wars is that there is a backstory for every background character, every ship, practically every grain of sand. In the movies, books, and comics we get to see so much more than the lightsabers and the big shiny battleships, and its the inclusion of all these mundane elements that helps make the Star Wars universe feel so lived in. So here in no particular order are the five best mundane pieces of Star Wars lore.

1. GR-75 Medium Transport

Wookieepedia

I just love these ships. Science fiction needs more purpose-built ships that do just one thing well. The GR-75 has a simple design that suits its purpose well, and the visible cargo pods inside its hull are a great feature that draws comparisons to the container ships of Earth while also giving it some measure of modularity. I especially like their use by the rebel alliance as troop transports and support ships. It helps to show how desperate their situation is. I can’t help but think the modularity afforded by the GR-75’s cargo pods could lead to one being made into a capable commerce raider.

2. Hydrospanner

Wookieepedia

Broken down and malfunctioning technology is a common feature of all science fiction. No point in having all those big shiny ships in your setting if they don’t break. The Hydrospanner is a small but vital bit of fluff included in both Star Wars Legends and Canon to explain how spacers manage to loosen and tighten bolts on their ships. Why? Because bringing a wrench into space would just be silly! But seriously, I love that so much detail has been provided on such a tiny tool, so much so that besides an article on Hydrospanners, Wookiepedia has an entire article on a specific model of Hydrospanner. Because of course we need to know the entire history of the tool in the hero’s hand.

3. Moisture Vaporators

Wookieepedia

Not only do they explain how humans and other species are able to survive on Tatooine, moisture vaporators explains why anyone would bother to try farming in the first place. With all the sand people, sarlacs, and krayt dragons about there needs to be something valuable in the desert to make people live so far away from the cities and it turns that thing is water.

4. Banthas

Wookieepedia

The iconic mounts of the Tusken Raiders are such a great part of the Star Wars universe. In Legends the Banthas were found throughout the galaxy. In the current canon (at least as far as I know) Bathas are found only on Tatooine. They’re a wonderfully mundane way to explain how the planet’s natives get from one place to the other and they’re so believable in their design.

5. Pajamas

Wookieepedia

Myself and probably everyone else who is going to be browsing Wookiepedia already knows what pajamas are, but I love that the good folks who update the site included a page on them just in case.

Like these listicles? Want to see more in-depth worldbuilding content? Come yell at me on twitter @expyblg or drop a comment. You can also buy me a coffee to help keep the content coming.

Summer Reading 2019

We all make promises to ourselves that we can’t keep. We say we’ll go on a diet or go to the gym more, or spend more time outside. If you’re like me you probably tell yourself you’re going to read more. That’s what I told myself at the beginning of the summer and I did, but not as much as I had hoped. I told myself a similar lie when I said that I would get this written over a month ago. And yet here we are.

So here is my very late list of some of the reading I got done this past summer.

Dune

Every fan of science fiction has probably at least heard of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece and with a new movie adaptation on the horizon it’s bound to get even more buzz. I first read the series back in middle school, it was one of the books I would bring with me every day to read on the bus and during study hall. It’s amazing the details you miss out on when you’re fighting to stay awake on the ride to school because you stayed up too late reading the night before.

I’ve been telling myself for years that I would revisit Dune to take in some details that I missed on my first read-through or that simply went over my head at that age. Well, I’ve finally accomplished my goal, or part of it. Back in July I was gifted the book on Audible and finally gave the platform a try (I admit this is a loose definition of reading). I never thought I would enjoy an audiobook but this really changed my mind. The narration brought the characters to life and some sections of the book even boasted separate voice actors for each character. These different voices helped greatly with immersion, especially in the case of Baron Harkonen. My only complaint is that the entire book was not narrated in this style.

I was really amazed by how many details I missed out on. Frank Herbert crafted a book with a complex setting that feels lived in and distant, but familiar at the same. I thought I knew the story well but I felt as if I was experiencing the book again for the first time. These books certainly deserve more than one read to really appreciate.

Velocity Weapon

I haven’t been doing much to keep up with recent scfi, or keep up much with scifi at all. So when I saw Meghan O’Keefe’s Velocity Weapon on sale I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. Boy do I regret staying away from scifi for so long.

O’Keefe introduces us to rogue AI, a wounded gunnery sergeant and her brother, and a thief living in the slums of her planet’s habit domes. The action takes place across two planets and a space ship, and leaves you guessing for much of the book about how they connect and what is real. O’Keefe does a great job keeping the reader in the reader guessing. Several times I tried to guess at an upcoming plot twist and turned out to be right, but the book keeps its secrets leaving readers to discover deeper plots alongside the characters.

The Darkness That Comes Before

I have a friend that has been trying to get me to read some of R. Scott Bakker’s work for years now and this summer I finally picked up the first book of “The Prince of Nothing” which is in turn the first trilogy of Bakker’s “The Second Appocalypse.” Before going on I should point out however that these books are not for young readers, and certainly not for those who might find gruesome of explicit content in their books disturbing. With that said, I very much enjoyed this book.

I started out unsure of how I felt. The book throws a lot at you in the opening chapters and doesn’t give a whole lot of explanation of what is going on. Overtime we learn a few things, Achamian is some kind of sorcerer who belongs to an magical order called the Mandate. Kellhus is a monk who has been sent out to accomplish some task that we aren’t quite sure of yet. And there is a holy war coming that several factions are fighting to take advantage of.

The book has a lot of things that I enjoy including a deep sense of history. The world we’re shown just feels old and there are constant hints of a greater past that has been lost. Bakker’s characters are deeply flawed and readers will likely be hard pressed to say that any of them are truly good. These are characters who have been shaped by a harsh world and their actions show it.

Magic is shown to be incredibly powerful in these books. At one point we are shown a relatively small group of sorcerers who annihilate a much larger force. With that said, magic is not something that is used frequently, at least in the sections that I have read so far. In fact we are told that Achamian, on of our POV characters, is incredibly powerful. Enough so that even the leaders of other magical schools seem to be wary of him and yet in the entire book we only see mentions of his power but few actual demonstrations. If anything I think this shows his strength more than any spell-slinging could.

The Thousand Names

Django Wexler’s books have been on my to-read list for a long time now and I have to say that I regret waiting. The series takes place in a gunpowder fantasy setting and follows a group of soldiers assigned to their kingdom’s colonial forces and in the beginning of this book find themselves faced with the difficult task of reinstalling the local rulers following an anti-imperialist coup. Their situation is then made more difficult by arrival of reinforcements led by an eccentric commander who has other motives for having requested this assignment.

I really enjoyed the book’s focus on the common soldiers and its portrayal of napoleonic style tactics in a fantasy setting. Even though this is a fantasy setting magic is not seen for most of the book. Features that initially seemed magical later turn out to have much more mundane explanations. Not to worry though, the book’s namesake turns out to be central to the plot later on and my initial impressions of the second book lead me to believe that magic will become a bigger part of the plot as the series progresses.

This Weekend’s Book Haul

I have a weakness for books.

I’ve starting telling people that reading is not a main hobby of mine, instead I say its buying books. It’s not that I don’t read them. I do. Eventually. I just buy them faster than I can ever seem to read them.

There is just something incredibly soothing about being in a book store, and if I have money in my pocket then it can be hard to stop myself from taking at least one home with me.

I am excited about all of these books, but the ones I am most looking forward to reading are The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I originally read both for the first time in middle school, but I have been wanting to re-read The Lord of the Rings and decided to get a more premium edition to go with the Earthsea Omnibus that I got in October. Then, when my mother saw what I had bought she decided to gift me her illustrated edition of The Hobbit. Which to me seems fitting since it was originally because of her recommendation that I first read these books all those years ago.

Now all that’s left for my collection is a new copy of Dune. Anyone know where I can get a nicely bound version of the book?