Sherlock Holmes meets the Culture. This, in short, will be used by many reviewers of this Hugo-nominated novella. On a superficial level, this will hold true (after all, I’m using the same analogy), but I think there are a few nuances that make this work well worth reading. Most notably, given what a prolific writer de Bodard is and how she likes to group her works into a series of fictional universes, this novella marks her third one in the already story-rich (over two dozen short stories) Xuya universe. It fleshes out the worldbuilding and sets up possibly more works to come.
The Xuya universe is based on, what appears to me, Oriental culture of the past. It reminds me of black and white adventure movies set in pre-war China and Indochina. That’s where my knowledge of the region and its culture ends, so please forgive me if I didn’t pinpoint the region and time frame more accurately. The story does not take place on Earth, though, but in space, where this Oriental culture proliferated. In addition to humans, the second dominant intelligent life form is the mind ship. The reader may first confuse them with the A.I. entities of the Culture series by Iain M. Banks, but they are not artificial intelligence. These are humans who shortly after the birth were implanted into ships, which they get to control. (They also have the unfortunate habit of having long, nonsensical names, which further evokes The Culture.)
This mechanism provides for the mind ships to be anthropomorphized. They may not feel physical sensations (they do have sensors, but also the capability to shut them off), but they have complex mentality and can develop a psychosis. This is the case of the book’s narrator, The Shadow Child. The ship had suffered a catastrophic injury while in the Deep Space, which left all of its crew dead. The Deep Space is a separate dimension of space, with slightly different physical laws. It looks and feels different from normal space. The mechanism of getting here is not described in this work, but that’s not important: it serves as a vehicle to portray something akin to agoraphobia for The Shadow Child. After the injury, the ship is simply not mentally strong to go back there.
Humans are not built to get there, either, but they can overcome this deficit by using cocktails of drugs, custom-mixed for any given person. The ship is now earning money mixing these drugs, and it’s what it prepares for its latest customer, Long Chau. Chau has an abrasive, direct personality, and after she convinces the ship to take her to the Deep Space she quickly deduces the source of the ship’s discomfort.
What follows is a classic detective story. Long Chau describes herself as a consulting detective, and she pressures the ship to follow her on a search for a dead body in the deep space. That opens the question how the victim died and who is to blame. As we follow the story, the two big questions that arise are whether the ship would be able to conquer its fears, and whether Chau’s hidden, and very questionable past would catch up with her.
I’m an unabashed Sherlock Holmes fan, and it wasn’t difficult for me to see this was a Holmes novel even before Chau called herself a consulting detective. Still, the setting was so novel for me that I didn’t see it as copying Doyle’s work. Most of the authors who do so don’t spend enough energy in setting up the detective story in a way that would let the reader follow the clues and understand how Holmes arrived at his deduction. This is the case here, too, but the worldbuilding is unique enough that apart of the similarities of the characters, this book stands on its own in a genre that is separate from a detective novel. In fact, very little else can serve as a comparison between the two works. The ship is certainly no Watson, and Chau, if anything, is trying to avoid the authorities rather than work with them.
The author has great imagination, and more importantly, she can efficiently share it with her readers. Her Dominion of the Fallen series is an especially good example of her descriptive worldbuilding skills. Here, she is taking a slightly different approach, revealing only the bare minimum to keep the audience interested, letting the reader’s imagination supply the rest. Even so, the book is full of interesting and sometimes quirky elements: real and virtual objects, mind ships feeding on virtual food that triggers the memories of specific tastes, personal bots that hide under people’s clothing and are ready to do the masters’ bidding, such as injecting more drugs into the bloodstream of the addicts. All this combines to form superb worldbuilding, which I hope will continue in future works from this series.
Unfortunately, the worldbuilding is overshadowing the story. I found the storyline to be of no consequence; merely a vehicle used to portray this fictional universe. The aforementioned Dominion of the Fallen does a much better job at balancing its world and the individual stories; here I couldn’t identify with or care about either of the protagonists. I surely hope, however, that de Bodard continues to develop them in future works, so that I get to know them better. Doyle didn’t do a large origin story for Holmes and Watson, either, and instead fed us just enough about their character that we grew to like them over several stories.
I still liked this novella. It kept me interested to the end and provided for a long evening of pleasant entertainment. The universe in this book is very well developed and described, and I liked the little intermissions describing the cultural rituals practiced in de Bodard’s world. The author has already won Locus and Nebula awards in the past, including a Nebula for this work, and I see no reason why she couldn’t add her first Hugo to her collection.