I had some back and forth via email with a friend about this book. We both agreed it was amazing in so many ways, however, I felt that it was just a little short of the sum of its parts (he disagreed strongly).
My biggest issue was that, to me, Checkhov’s gun was taken out, placed on the table, and then the book ended without it even having been picked up again, much less fired. My friend pushed back on this and believed it handled well an ambiguity about a sequel that might fire the gun, while allowing for a smaller, self-contained story.
The good parts is a fascinatingly built world (the titular empire) which draws from both Pre-Columbian (especially Aztec) and Asian (especially Chinese) historical traditions. There are also fascinating depictions of different conceptions of identity and memory. There is one culture which prizes memory and the ability to memorize long passages of poetry and one which made perfect recall of past experiences so vital that it created technology to preserve memory and implant it in another, along with something resembling the deceased’s personality (which also brings up interesting questions about who one is when another person’s memories are in your head and also the question of whether those memories are sufficient to identity, i.e., are we just the sum of those experiences, versus identity being tied to being embodied or to a ‘soul’).