Generally, A Desolation Called Peace is nearly as good as A Memory Called Empire. It replaces parts of the intrical cultural commentary with very alien aliens who need to be communicated with, but surprisingly, the aliens are one of the weakest parts of the book. This is basially the anti-Tchaikovsky, where humans are inevitably more interesting than even hive mind aliens.
The weak parts of the book echo the first book, really: The story wraps up a bit too neatly, the character development is put off too much where inconvenient, and the book would like to spend more time on exploring the culture than on the plot. Which works for me, so no complaints there.
I wish the aliens had been a bit more intriguing, but I minded less than I expected. The aliens make a distinction between being a real person (aka undying hive mind) and the others, who they characterise as “thinking language”. As somebody with a primarily nonverbal mode of thinking, that was exciting at first with … kind of zero payoff, which feels like a wasted opportunity. In exchange, Martine does an occasionally very good job of portraying the trouble of learning an alien language during first contact – but then goes back to being really more into the culture and politics of the empire.
What really got me is how Martine continues the commentary on cultural primacy and the feeling of being just outside a culture and language that you really love. The protagonist’s position and feelings echo my experiences with English-speaking people and countries to a degree that is uncanny, particularly as written by an American. Being always not exactly included, never quite on solid ground, even while you feel yourself losing fluency and comfort in your native language hits hard, and made me reconsider some priorities. You may have noticed that in a 3-month, 18 book gap in reviews on here. I’ll find words for it eventually, please hold the line.