REVIEW: The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
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…
Dear Aliette De Bodard,
I think you are an amazing writer and I look forward to every new novel or short story from you. However I have to admit that when you advertised this story as “gender swapped” Sherlock Holmes, I stopped short in my tracks for few minutes, because I usually have no interest in gender swapped anything and Sherlock Holmes’s stories written by anybody except Arthur Conan Doyle as a rule is not my thing either. I of course purchased the story, because you authored it and because it is set in the same universe as “On the Red Station, Drifting” which I loved to pieces.
First and foremost readers, yes I know that the price is very high. While I did pay and I know I will pay again thirteen dollars for some SFF novels, I cannot come up with any other name for whose short story (It has 852 locations on my kindle), I will pay $4.99. I think the price is so high because it is coming from the publisher who does collection editions. Hardcover on preorder was $40.00, and when I am typing this review, it is $32 dollars and change on Amazon. In any event, I do not regret paying this price, but beware of the short length.
This story only strengthened my opinion that Aliette De Bodard is an amazing writer. As I stated above this is a short story, however so much is packed in the narrative that when I finished it, I felt as if I read if not the novel, then a long novella for sure. The world building is effortless. I do not believe you need to read “On the Red Station, Drifting” at all to understand what is happening in this one, even though couple of key world building points were mentioned before. The stories are different and the writer mentions the pertinent information again, without any info dumping whatsoever if I may say. She does not waste words at all, in my opinion. Every sentence, every word was important to the narrative.
I liked how the familiar SF themes were given fresh twist. For example, of course intelligent ships which play important role in this world were not a new concept. However, off the top of my head I cannot remember a story where the mind of the ship was born in the human womb and then brought to the ship. I believe in this world all of the mindships are born by humans, it makes them members of extended families and can create some interesting dynamics, which were barely hinted at in this story.
Mindships in this Universe also have an interesting way of socializing with humans and between themselves through their avatars. The Shadow Child as the blurb tells you was a military transport ship who few years ago experienced significant trauma due to the mission gone wrong and as blurb tells you now makes her living by brewing special drugs for the space travelers to help them get through deep spaces as painlessly as possible. I was not sure what “deep space” was actually – meaning how one gets there, at first I thought that it was simply something in your own mind that your conscience goes too.
However considering that Long Chau was asking The Shadow Child to take her there, I abandoned my conclusion and decided that they indeed traveled somewhere in the real Space. I could be wrong, but in any event, where they went was not nearly as important as what they found and what they decided to do about it.
Long Chau needed to find herself a corpse for her scientific studies and The Shadow Child helped her find one. Only it turns out that the young woman was murdered and when Long Chau walked in The Shadow Child’s office she kindly left out what it was that she did for a living. Apparently Long Chau was a consulting detective and she decided to investigate the murder.
I have to tell you, if I did not hear that Long Chau was supposed to have some Sherlock Holmes similarities; I may not even have realized that. She is a detective who does not really think about people’s feelings when she is concentrated on solving the problem, although she is eager to do her job and help. Oh, I guess the drugs’ use is supposed to be main similarity? I am not sure. I only know that if there ever was homage to the classics done right, to me this story was it. We do have a brilliant, acerbic detective, who may have some personality traits that are similar to Holmes, but she was not “gender swapped Holmes”, not to me anyway.
I really enjoyed imagining The Shadow Child as Doctor Watson though. Why? Because original Watson was not a stupid man, he just was not a detective genius and at times I felt bad as to how unfrequently narrative emphasized that. Here it is very clear that The Shadow Child may be dealing with the trauma and she may not be able to solve crimes on the spot with brilliant deductions, but I did not have to look for hints about her being smart.
If the author decides to write more adventures for this couple I am so looking forward to reading those.