Tuesday, 24 April 2018

The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard is a standalone novella set in the Xuya universe. I have previously read On a Red Station Drifting and some miscellaneous short stories set in this Dai Viet future (and one set in the alternate history present of the same world). You do not have to have read anything else to enjoy The Tea Master and the Detective, however.

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 appareance 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...

This was an excellent read. I've enjoyed all the Xuya universe stories I've read and this one was no exception. The story most closely follows The Shadow's Child, a shipmind whose entire crew died in a war which also left the ship damaged and stranded until rescue eventually came. In this story we see the crew-less (and almost family-less) shipmind interacting with humans that aren't riding inside her and with other shipminds. It was an interesting and different take on how these sorts of sentient non-humans would fit into society. Turns out the answer is partly by acting human — they project avatars into human spaces — and the shipmind equivalents of human activities such as eating are really cool.

The characters in The Tea Master and the Detective are modelled after gender-flipped Sherlock and Watson, with Long Chau, the former tutor, taking on the role of Sherlock and The Shadow's Child, a traumatised battle-scarred shipmind, playing the role of Watson. You don't have to be an avid Sherlock fan to enjoy it — I myself am relatively neutral on Sherlock and retellings. I haven't read any of the books, I've been enjoying Elementary, I liked House MD, I've seen a few movies and I've suffered through Moffat's BBC series. I, somewhat inevitably, found myself comparing the character interactions with Elementary, but I think that's partly because that's the rendition that brought the drug-addict aspect of Sherlock to my attention, which was also prominent in The Tea Master and the Detective. Or it could have been something to do with de Bodard mentioning in the afterword that Elementary is her favourite version of Sherlock.

Whether or not you've read other Xuya books, I highly recommend The Tea Master and the Detective. You also don't have to have any strong feelings about the Sherlock cannon, although I gather strong pro-Sherlock feelings may enhance your enjoyment of what is already a very strong novella. If you haven't read any of de Bodard's science fiction before, this is an excellent place to start. If you have, this is an excellent book to continue with. I am definitely going to keep reading Xuya stories.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: April 2018, JABerwocky Literary Agency (Rest of World) / Subterranean Press (US/Canada)
Series: Xuya universe, but standalone
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Kobo

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