Aliette de Bodard brings us a new novella set in the award-winning, critically acclaimed Xuya universe!
Welcome to the Scattered Pearls Belt, a collection of ring habitats and orbitals ruled by exiled human scholars and powerful families, and held together by living mindships who carry people and freight between the stars. In this fluid society, human and mindship avatars mingle in corridors and in function rooms, and physical and virtual realities overlap, the appearance of environments easily modified and adapted to interlocutors or current mood.
A transport ship discharged from military service after a traumatic injury, The Shadow's Child now ekes out a precarious living as a brewer of mind-altering drugs for the comfort of space-travellers. Meanwhile, abrasive and eccentric scholar Long Chau wants to find a corpse for a scientific study. When Long Chau walks into her office, The Shadow's Child expects an unpleasant but easy assignment. When the corpse turns out to have been murdered, Long Chau feels compelled to investigate, dragging The Shadow's Child with her.
As they dig deep into the victim's past, The Shadow's Child realises that the investigation points to Long Chau's own murky past—and, ultimately, to the dark and unbearable void that lies between the stars…
De Bodard revisits her far-future Xuya universe setting with this gripping novella about damaged characters driven to search for the truth. The Shadow's Child, a sentient spaceship who was traumatized by her war experiences as a troop transport, makes a subsistence living at a habitat in the "provincial backwater" of the Scattered Pearls asteroid belt, concocting drug mixtures to help travelers function in the deep spaces. Then Long Chau, a consulting detective, hires her to help recover a corpse from the deep spaces so she can study how bodies there decompose. The corpse leads them both into an investigation that could reveal their own private secrets as well as the murky truth about the recovered body. De Bodard constructs a convincingly gritty setting and a pair of unique characters with provocative histories and compelling motivations. The story works as well as both science fiction and murder mystery, exploring a future where pride, guilt, and mercy are not solely the province of humans.
Holmes and brain-ships
Everyone and their cousin is using the relationships and themes of Sherlock Holmes as inspiration for characters in decidedly non-English non-Edwardian non-mimetic settings these days. Some of them are doing it very well--sometimes so well that the Holmesian framework is almost unnecessary as an underpinning for the story. (I’m thinking of more than this one novel in this context, but this is the one I’m reviewing at the moment.) This story retains the mystery framework, the enigmatic and cerebral investigator who plays everything very close to their chest, and the traumatized narrator in a healing-related profession who plays an essential supporting role. But “Watson” is a brain-ship whose deep-space trauma has restricted them to the spaceport profession of creating psychologically active teas to treat people undergoing space travel, and “Sherlock” has a dark history that may or may not be related to the investigation that takes them out into the dangerous parts of space. I enjoyed this contribution to the loosely-connected Xuya story-verse, though it was a bit more relaxed and comfortable than some of my favorite brain-stretching encounters. I’m not entirely sure that it needs to be a Sherlock Holmes story, but that makes a good hook for those who might not otherwise give the story a try.
Mindship & annoying customer
Somehow, I forgot this had its roots in Watson & Holmes until I finally hit the phrase of Consulting Detective. Then I realized a bunch of other parallels & cracked up.
I really hope there will be sequels!
Sherlock in space!
This is part of a series of novellas and short stories set in the Xuya Universe, a Vietnamese-influenced science fiction series. It’s the first I’ve read, but certainly won’t be the last! It was wildly immersive, well-paced, and ever so much fun!
“The world is chaotic and without sense. But in the smallest of spheres it’s sometimes possible to straighten things out; to make it seem as though everything means something.”
What starts out as an eccentric woman asking a traumatized war vet for help retrieving a corpse from deep space to study for a scientific paper turns into a murder investigation. Sound familiar? Why yes, it’s Sherlock in space! In this universe, traveling at faster than light speeds requires going into deep space, a weird and frightening area of unreality, something that only mindships – ships that are somehow fused with a human – can accomplish. Deep space isn’t particularly friendly to the ships, and even less so to humans, so specialized brews of tea can be customized to help a person cope, by making them braver or more calm or simply doping them up.
“Long Chau was an expanding star, burning loud and bright, mesmerising in her relentlessness, and ultimately one that would swallow you whole.”
The Shadow’s Child is one such mindship and tea-brewer, a war vet who’s barely scraping by selling customized brews for dock workers and other mundane customers. One such not-so-mundane customer is Long Chau, a scholar of sorts. She’s abrasive and blunt, but The Shadow’s Child accepts her commission because she can’t afford to be too picky. But things aren’t quite what they seem, with either the corpse they retrieve or Long Chau, and The Shadow’s Child has to navigate her need for justice – and to possibly save lives – with her traumatic past and jumbled feelings about her. Men, it seems, often get a pass on being harsh and socially tone deaf if they're talented, so it was fascinating to see the roles of both Sherlock and Watson filled by women. A large portion of the story - besides the mystery of the dead woman they find - centers on whether The Shadow's Child can trust Long Chau, and whether her dislike of her stems from her not-so-stellar personality or a gut feeling that something more sinister is going on.
I’ve read a few things by Ms. de Bodard before, and once again, I found myself immersed in her wordlbuilding and writing style. Rather than just pay homage to an Asian-influenced future (*cough* Firefly *cough*), this universe is more steeped in Vietnamese culture, from the names of the ships to cultural traditions. I was fascinated by the idea of mindships, though I didn’t quite understand exactly what they are, as The Shadow’s Child refers to being born and having living people as family. However it works, she reads as human, albeit a severely traumatized one, full of anxiety about money, her past, and whether she can trust Long Chau. Long Chau, for her part, is by turns frustrating and sympathetic, and I, for one, got a laugh out of watching The Shadow’s Child – a ship – trying to soothe the ruffled feathers of the witnesses they’re trying to question. For all her faults, though, it’s Long Chau and her sharp insight that finally forces The Shadow’s Child to deal with her past, and that, for me, was the best part of the novella.
Overall, this was an amazingly fresh and immersive take on a Sherlock-type mystery, and I’m definitely hoping Ms. de Bodard will write more novellas starring this pair!
I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.