A Desolation Called Peace is the second book in a loosely-connected duology, following up on A Memory Called Empire. That novel was as dramatically impressive as any space opera debut from the last couple of decades, a confidently-written novel about politics, identity and intrigue that won a Hugo Award. This book is the continuation, although the main story (about the first encounter with an unknown alien race in deep space) stands alone.
Desolation is not quite as striking a novel as Memory, maybe because it is trying to do a bit too much. The novel continues the political intrigue on the Teixcalaanli homeworld from the previous novel, albeit with some new players (most of the intriguers from the previous novel having been fired, killed, imprisoned or exiled), whilst also throwing in a widescreen, big-budget space war and an Arrival-style subplot with the protagonists trying to understand the aliens' language, which is difficult because it is rooted in concepts, ideas and fundamental biology that humans are completely unfamiliar with. Further subplots revolve around the new Emperor trying to assert their authority, the Emperor's heir learning important lessons about statecraft and Seagrass and Mahit's relationship, which was left on an awkward pause in the first book. There's also internal politicking within the Teixcalaanli fleet and a lot of business on Lsel Station as well.
It makes for a busy, breezy book with a lot going on, but the tight page count (480 pages in paperback) means a lot of these ideas are not explored in as much detail as maybe they could have been. Extending the duology to three books or making A Desolation Called Peace into a Peter F. Hamilton-class shelf-destroyer might have been a better way of expanding these stories more satisfyingly. Still, leaving readers wanting more and making novels as tight as possible is not a bad thing either.
Many of the themes from the first novel continue to be explored, such as the tension between the semi-decadent Teixcalaanli, whose overwhelming power makes them both arrogant and overconfident when faced with a potentially greater threat, and the much more pragmatic inhabitants of Lsel Station. The aliens are an added wild card here, with an interesting biology and impressive technical prowess, and a truly alien way of thinking that the author evokes well through the text. The aliens are also not over-used, deployed just enough so we get a sense of their strangeness but not so much that they lose their effectiveness.
If poetry was a theme of the first book, language is a theme here, and how language shapes ideas and ideology (and vice versa). Like some other plots, the Arrival-like storyline of talking to the aliens is a little curt, but what we do get is fascinating. There is also the way the Teixcalaanli use language themselves, and how they communicate and what methods of communication they use. This becomes a key point of the subplot involving the Emperor's heir, which initially feels detached from the main narrative but loops back in satisfyingly later on.
A Desolation Called Peace (****) is an accomplished, page-turning, idea-packed space opera which tells a lot of great stories, but the sheer number of stories it is telling in a constrained page count means that occasionally you find yourself wishing more greater elaboration of a storyline or character arc. But it also gives the novel a relentless, compelling pace. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.