Sunday, February 24, 2019

"The Tea Master and The Detective" by Aliette de Bodard

(This was the February 2019 Think Galactic selection.)

The Tea Master and The Detective is set in the Xuya universe, a space-opera setting from a history where Chinese, Vietnamese, and Mesoamerican cultures predominate. A Sherlock Holmes homage, the novella (novellete?) follows a traumatized ship AI, The Shadow's Child, who plays a reluctant Watson to Long Chau, a "consulting detective" looking into a murder. Straightforward in its Holmes-structure, I found it most interesting for its focus on trauma, as well as all the snippets of Xuya worldbuilding we get.

The characters here are engaging, the work's main strength. That's unfortunate, since it's so short! Shadow's Child and Long Chau's interactions are great, odd imbalances of personality and power grafted onto the Doyle formula: Shadow's Child is a superhuman AI, but shy and traumatized; Long Chau has those Holmes-like powers of observation and deduction, but is secretive, shaped by the past in ways she doesn't want to acknowledge. I liked the way that Long Chau's abrasiveness feels genuine, largely unintentional, not overplayed, so Shadow's Child's opinion and interactions with her also feel more genuine.

As an aside, one of many gripes I have with the Holmes Adaptation Lineage, as it were, is the way that the character of Sherlock often verges on sociopathy, something not much in evidence, if at all, in the original Doyle stories. Rather like the bolts on the side of Frankenstein's neck, really—a later addition become semi-fixed in the lore. So it's nice to see that Tea Master doesn't go down this road more than needed. (On even more of a tangent, should note that Goss's Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter, a recent Chicago Nerds selection, lacks both sociopathy and bolts in its Holmes/Frankenstein, respectively.)

The Tea Master and The Detective offers a lot of fascinating glimpses of the worldthe omnipresent personal bots, fashion accessories as well as medical/informational prosthetics, are particularly cool. I'm also a fan of "the deep spaces", the other-dimensional space that the ships use for FTL travel. Put me in mind of various "magic/weird/unsettling hyperspace" works: Friedman's This Alien Shore, MiƩville's Embassytown, various Cherryh works.

I also really like The Shadow's Child as a character, and especially appreciate that the most human character in the book is a ship. Granted, de Bodard's ship-minds are semi-biological, human-birthed, but Shadow's Child as the more obviously feeling character is a great dynamic. At Think Galactic, we ranked this positively alongside ship-characters in Leckie's Ancillary and Banks' Culture series.

A fun read, without a ton to dig into, thanks to its brevity; still very immersive and enjoyable. I would highly recommend checking this out, however, especially in conjunction with other readings from the Xuya universe. De Bodard has helpfully listed them all, many available to read freely online, on her website.

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