REVIEW: Seven of Infinities by Aliette de Bodard
Vân is a scholar from a poor background, eking out a living in the orbitals of the Scattered Pearls Belt as a tutor to a rich family, while hiding the illegal artificial mem-implant she manufactured as a student.
Sunless Woods is a mindship and not just any mindship, but a notorious thief and a master of disguise. She’s come to the Belt to retire, but is drawn to Vân’s resolute integrity.
When a mysterious corpse is found in the quarters of Vân’s student, Vân and Sunless Woods find themselves following a trail of greed and murder that will lead them from teahouses and ascetic havens to the wreck of a mindship and to the devastating secrets they’ve kept from each other.
Dear Aliette de Bodard,
I’m just entering your Xuya Universe and was thrilled to be allowed access to this arc. The reasons you list on your website for wanting to write these books – inclusive science fiction with strong female characters at the center of the stories – are what has drawn me to read them. I’m still floundering a bit and googling like mad to get up to speed on the cultural details but this is part of what makes reading fun: the chance to learn new things.
Though “Seven of Infinities” may start out in media res and soon adds a corpse to the awkward conversation between scholar Van and mindship “The Wild Orchid in Sunless Woods,” it quickly becomes more than that. Both characters are hiding secrets but with her wealth and seeming social status, “Sunless Woods” is accepted in scholarly society while Van is clinging to what she’s managed to construct for herself. Not having scholarly ancestors who could become mem-implants and thus help her pass examinations while bestowing their blessings on her, Van made one from other people’s rejects and implanted it herself. Should this become known, it would be viewed as shocking and Van as a fraud. There would be no way she’d be able to hang onto her job as a tutor to the teenager of a more prominent family.
When the mindship tells Van that there are things about her being whispered by the other members of a poetry club to which they both belong, “Sunless Woods” can tell that Van is hiding something and that Van is also used to being an outsider. While “Sunless Woods” would be outraged at the idea of someone kicking her out, Van becomes even more stoic and is reluctant to argue against it. Then the woman who had come to see Van’s student is found dead in Uyen’s room.
Van’s reactions are to protect her student Uyen from “the militia” which Van has reason to know won’t be kind or gentle while looking into the death. On the other hand, “Sunless Woods” is drawn to help in the investigation. Who was the woman and why did she come to see Uyen? What secret is the mindship hiding about her past? And what is a primary duty of an elder sister to a younger member of her family?
There is no info-dump about this universe in the book. Along the way, little details are scattered and included where needed. Attention must be paid and it helps to know how strong family duty and responsibility is in Vietnamese society. One example in the story is how Van ponders whether or not the family members of a dead mindship, left adrift in an asteroid field, mourn her. Scholars are looked up to but the Empire has had terrible battles in its past and doesn’t look on lawbreaking kindly.
I enjoyed watching the two main characters really get to know each other. In many ways, Van and “Sunless Woods” are total opposites. Van is human while “Sunless Woods” is actually a sentient spaceship. The power balance is obviously large but there is consent asked for, demanded, and given between them. While Van has had to fight for her place in society and sometimes used less than honorable means, she also has a rigid sense of duty and skirting around the edges of honor bothers her deeply.
“Sunless Woods” appears to have the easy acceptance and position Van has craved since her “poor student” days but the reality is far different. They are attracted to each other – and yes a human and a mindship can have a physical intimacy – but face many of the same issues that bedevil any growing relationship. When this becomes an issue in the climactic scene, I cheered that Van got angry and demanded her due. The way the conflict was resolved also stays true to the Xuya world and traditional Vietnamese values. I definitely want to see more of the character who manages things so neatly.
The book is short in length and as such, when it was over, I did feel that some explanations and things had been skimmed over. Why was this or who was that? What led from A to C? Sometimes little details might have helped but then they could also have been spoilers, so okay. With each book I read, I get more intrigued by this world that has been created, I like that it isn’t spoonfed to me, and am looking forward to exploring it more deeply. B