With my last review, of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, I spent a bit of time musing on what might helps you decide whether or not to start new book series, and what compels you to continue. In the case of Aliette de Bodard’s The Tea Master and The Detective, I didn’t so much choose to start a new series as much as I stumbled into one. Thankfully, most of the books in the Xuya Universe can be read as stand alones, because as it turns out, I picked one of the more recent entries. Oops. So rather than deciding whether or not I need to pick up the next book in this series, I now need to decide if I should go back and start from the start.
I confess, I picked this book up based on 1) my reading of Aliette de Bodard’s Children of Thorns, Children of Water last year — and no, I never did get around to writing a review for it, unfortunately; and 2) the combination of the title and the cover. And while I know you’re told not to judge a book by its cover, can you blame me here? We have a detective story, and it involves an expert in tea! And it’s in a kind of futuristic East Asian inspired setting — in space! What’s not to love?
The Tea Master of the title is a shipmind called The Shadow’s Child. Shipminds are partly human; grown by alchemists in laboratories, their bodies are implanted into the heartrooms of space-faring vessels where they act as the control centre. They can also project human-shaped avatars of themselves into human habitations to socialise or do business. The Shadow’s Child used to be involved in the military, but after losing her crew, she appears to be suffering from PTSD. Instead, in the manner of an impoverished compounding chemist, she now makes a meagre living brewing travellers special teas that have mind-altering effects.
Long Chau – The Detective – is one of The Shadow’s Child’s more enigmatic customers. She asks The Shadow’s Child to brew her a tea to keep her calm and to reduce her mental fuzziness while she recovers a corpse from deep space; a sort of sea of unreality which allows faster-than-light travel. This request makes The Shadow’s Child wary, as even a skilled tea master would be reluctant to brew anything for someone with such an apparent drug dependency as Long Chau. But with bills to pay, The Shadow’s Child can’t afford to reject her new customer; so despite her reservations about travelling back into deep space, she monitors Long Chau on her retrieval mission – which then suddenly pivots into a murder investigation. While Long Chau tries to discover the truth of what happened to the body, The Shadow’s Child starts her own investigation into the background of Long Chau.
By this point of the story, the dynamic was starting to feel a little familiar – and if you’re following along, you might be starting to feel the same. Our narrator is a war veteran who is keeping company with a remarkable detective, who happens to have a substance abuse problem.
All I can say is that I’m rather glad Cannonball Bookclub made the choice they did, despite the fact I forgot to vote!
I find Aliette de Bodard to be quite remarkable, and I have no reservations continuing with the Xuya Universe books. She’s managed to pack so much into 90-odd pages; you could nearly forget that this is a novella. There are so many interesting little facets in this world that they could easily become the focus of a whole other book themselves if given a chance. I’m especially interested in the shipminds – while using a human or human-like mind to run technology is not a new concept, I think this is the first time I’ve read something that focuses on their socialisation and their community rather than the technology itself or the mind’s sense of identity. And it’s utterly fascinating to read into. On the other hand, some other concepts presented in the story, such as deep spaces, were a little difficult to grasp. I sort of pictured them as something akin to hyperspace, but I can’t shake the feeling I’m getting it a little wrong. I suspect the previous books went into more detail because I was feeling a bit lost.
While I have plenty more reading in this universe ahead, I hope Aliette de Bodard decides to give us more detective stories involving Long Chau and The Shadow’s Child. Her futuristic, gender-bent take on Holmes and Watson was something I didn’t know I needed.
But as to whether or not this is best read before or after other entries in the series? I’ll have to get back to you on that one.
*Scans bingo sheet*
This one fits nicly into Remix