Travel Documents 31: The Tea Master and The Detective

The Tea Master and the Detective

Aliette de Bodard
Genre: spec-fic, futurist, Asian-futurism, mystery

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The Dust Cover Copy

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…

The Deets

The Scene

Worldbuilding

In this universe where Chinese is the default culture (not that hard to believe, given the number of Chinese citizens and their current trajectory) we are introduced to a world where Chinese values are the norm: where ship-minds who were once critically disabled humans are honored as the elder aunts and uncles of their many generations of relatives, invited to project their virtual selves at all family events. Where the sign of high technology is the elegance with which it becomes a seamless part of daily life. And where tea is prized as a high art form, though with a new purpose: allowing humans to stay sane under the pressures of interstellar travel.

The setting is far-future, but there is a timeless quality to this writing, a note of grace that makes it as understandable as gazing into a reflecting pool. The characters’ actions are strange, but their motivations are still completely human. That is one of the greater compliments I can give.

The Crowd

Characterization

The ship The Shadow’s Child and Lou Chou are a wonderful twist on the Holmes and Watson setup: The Shadow’s Child, very old, a little wounded and very thoughtful, is a little unnerved but altogether amazed and warily enjoying the company of the tight-wound, whip-smart Lou Chou, who’s higher than a kite and keen as a knife. Together, they make a great Dynamic Duo.

The exploration of The Shadow’s Child and how her life as a ship and blender of neurochemical-affecting teas has shaped her is entrancing, at once  a deeper view on humanity and a sojourn into otherness.
The side characters are all fleshed out enough to be solidly believable too: even when you don’t agree with them, you understand them. The tragedy of their decisions and the bravery of their attempts to reach for a better life.

The Lingo

Writing Style

Clear-eyed, serene and insightful, this is an intellectual treat encased in a dream.

Take this scene where The Shadow’s Child is sorting through a conclusion:

“Blends. A delicate balance of compounds fed to one person, monitored to be sure they had no adverse effects. Expensive, of course, and the sisterhood was tight for money. They’d pay someone not very much. Someone like Nguyen Van An Tam, the brewer who gave Grandmother Khue her cheap blends. And they’d get a shoddily made job, and… Breathe. In a room at the heart of her was her core—her self, plugged into connectors and then into the ship, hanging in the vastness of space, and nothing could touch her there.”

There is, in one passage, a sense of timelessness and a fierce drive. Reading this work makes it easier to understand what it might be like to live as a ship.

The Moves

Plot

Perfectly balanced and as nicely timed as the perfect cup of tea. A fascinating and intricate tale that hides surprising complexity in its deceptively simple plot devices

Overall Rating

A wonderful entry for your bookshelf. Get a copy.