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The Xuya Universe, Novellas
by Aliette de Bodard

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 4, 2019
Edits & Addendum on September 30, 2020

Click on the individual titles to skip to that part of the review. Please note, all are available in print from Amazon, even if for a used copy; all but the last are on Kindle now. Bookshop only offers two of them at this time. As always, purchases through our links may earn us a commission. Other options are to try ebay, bookfinder.com, or bookoutlet.com.

On a Red Station, Drifting / The Citadel of Weeping Pearls / The Tea Master and the Detective / Seven of Infinities

Aliette de Bodard is a Vietnamese/French writer, born in the US, but raised, educated, and currently living in France. French is her primary language but she writes in English. The Xuya Universe of stories has changed somewhat over the years. It is an alternate history where China and other Asian nations attained high technology before the West, and China was the country that first discovered and colonized America, a hundred years or so before Europeans did in our reality. Some of the earlier stories, which began with "The Lost Xuyan Bride" in 2007, showed more of a Chinese influence, but she shifted to a reflection of Vietnamese culture around 2012, and has retained that perspective since. The Xuya Universe is a finalist for a Hugo this year as Best Series, and the third story mentioned here is up for Best Novella on its own, after winning a Nebula in that category earlier this year. To the best of my recollection, the first three were the first of de Bodard's stories I read, but I'm anxious to find more. Several are available to read online, others have been in Best of the Year anthologies, or other collections available on Kindle. I also have an ARC of an upcoming story collection which is supposed to include her personal favorite Xuya stories, among others, so I'll wait on that to see which are included. For now, if interested, check her website and/or wikipedia for more information.

I've only skimmed those pages so far, mainly to get a sense of how extensive the series is, and for general information on the timelines. To summarize, and to give background for the following stories, the Dai Viet (literally "Great Viet") Empire began in the mid-11th Century, then continued until 1804, with a gap in the early part of the 15th Century when China once again controlled the country. L Loi led a successful revolt against the Ming Dynasty to re-establish Dai Viet in 1428. Later, the French colonized the renamed Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia. In the Xuya Universe, Dai Viet continued for centuries more, even though they suffered periodic conflicts with both China and France. They advanced technologically along with the Chinese, with the brightest minds from Dai Viet emigrating to Xuya, the colony China had established on the west coast of North America. All of this culminated in space explorations that established colonies on extra-solar planets, as well as various orbital stations and habitats. What I don't know now is the time frames involved, if this occurred earlier or later than historical events like our Moon landing and Martian probes. As I read more of the stories I will hopefully learn which star systems are now inhabited, but at this time I'm not sure if the numbered planets mentioned in these novellas are all in the same system, or possibly in several different systems that are in close proximity to each other. I'll discuss technologies as they come into play in the various stories. It may not make sense, but these stories are both simple and complex. Simple in that common space opera tropes are used, even if terms for the technologies differ. Complex in that they feature a culture and traditions with which I'm not familiar. They are definitely science fiction, but there's a strong fantasy feel. They are all highly recommended.

UPDATE: I've now read and reviewed her first major story collection, Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight, which includes twelve Xuya stories.

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On a Red Station, Drifting (2012) was a finalist for Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. It was released by a small publishing company, Immersion Press, which I at first thought was named after another Xuya story of that title published the same year, but they were established a few years prior to that. It may have been the other way around, her naming the story after the company. The main character is L Thi Linh, a descendant of Emperor L Loi, but then again so are many others in the story. She had been a magistrate on the Twenty-Third Planet, but fled when rebel forces occupied it, and after writing a memorial to the Emperor criticizing his ineffectual management and abandonment of the outer systems. Not that she had much room to criticize, since she did abandon her own post, which causes her a bit of grief, but not enough to keep her from feeling superior to a distant cousin, Quyen, the administrator of Prosper Station. Expecting to be placed in a position of merit, she is instead assigned as tutor to Quyen's nieces. Linh and Quyen clash on numerous occasions, not only because Quyen is enraged by her cousin's arrogance, but also due to several stressful situations she is dealing with on the station.

The mother of the nieces had been away from the station on either a diplomatic or military mission, without report for nearly five years. The father is depressed, drinking heavily and gambling himself into debt. So much debt he resorts to the sale of his mem-implants, which connects him to the memories and advice of ancestors. Another problem involves the infrastructure of the station, and in particular the rapid degeneration of the Honoured Ancestress, the AI consciousness that controls the majority of station functions. Basic life support would not be affected, but the more intimate connections the Honoured Ancestress maintained with each individual would be at risk; tracking their movements, monitoring their health and safety, imparting advice, etc. That connection is available to everyone, longtime station residents as well as newcomers like Linh, through a link to the trance, described in such a way as to make me think of a cerebral internet connection. Another part of the plot revolves around the Emperor's anticipated action against Linh for her impudence in criticizing him. Will she be taken into custody, imprisoned, or executed? The fact that several other high-placed officials are sympathetic to her opinions does not mean they will risk their own well-being to come to her defense. I am anxious to read other stories to fill in the blanks of the culture and technology, but this story satisfied even though it refrained from too many details, including Linh's fate, which is revealed in the following story. She is an intriguing character, at times noble and honorable, at others petty and vindictive, at once proud of herself and ashamed of how far she has fallen in a society she desperately wants to be loyal to again. The strengths of all of these stories are the lyrical prose and well-drawn characters, which helps with the immersion into a complicated society of tradition, propriety, and societal and familial obligations.

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The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, a finalist for a Locus award, appeared in the October and November 2015 issues of Asimov's. It takes place about thirty years after Red Station. L Thi Linh recurs, but she is not the main character. We learn she was imprisoned for most of that period for her defiance of the Emperor, who is now deceased. Empress Mi Hiep rules Dai Viet, and Linh is one of her advisers. This far-flung collection of worlds seems to have as militaristic a history as Southeast Asia has had in our world. Dai Viet had long suffered from conflicts between the L dynasty and the Nguyen, as is still the case in this future. There were rebels in play in the first novella, who may or may not have succeeded in controlling some of the planets and stations. Not sure, since details are scarce, and some of the information may be in other stories. Now thirty years later there are other forces encroaching on Dai Viet, or perhaps they're remnants of the previous rebellions. However, that is just a side plot in this story. An event that must have occurred shortly after the end of the previous novella involves the titular Citadel, which I gathered was not just one ship, but a conglomeration of a large ship with many connected or peripheral habitats. It was the creation of the Empress' daughter, the Bright Princess Ngoc Minh, a brilliant physicist who had developed many wondrous new and dangerous technologies, including teleportation and high energy weapons. The Empress was fearful of those technologies and how Minh intended to utilize them, so she ordered the Citadel to be occupied and brought under her control. Minh had other plans, and the Citadel mysteriously disappeared, along with all its inhabitants.

It's written in third-person, with the perspective alternating between four different characters; The Empress, The Officer, The Engineer, and The Younger Sister. The officer is Suu Nuoc, one of the Empress' former lovers, also a former general, now an investigator in the Purple Forbidden City on the First Planet; the engineer is Diem Huong, whose mother was on the Citadel when it disappeared; the younger sister is Thousand-Heart Princess Ngoc Ha, who misses her older sister terribly even though they were not that close before, never similar in personality or temperament. She knows her mother has little regard for her, and wishes she had Minh's intellect and strength of character. Suu Nuoc is called in to investigate the disappearance of Bach Cuc, a Grand Master of Design Harmony. The technology of the Honourable Ancestress in the first story was the same as for a ship's Mind. They are both mechanical and organic, which was a bit confusing, and I'm not sure I understand it completely. The Mind that informed Suu Nuoc of the disappearance is The Turtle's Golden Claw, which is also the name of the ship in which it is installed. Minds can project an avatar of themselves to other locations, which I guess is done through the trance, or something similar, but I'm positive that term was not used once in this story. The Turtle's Golden Claw is the daughter of Ngoc Ha, having been implanted into the princess' womb, with gestation and birth the conventional way, then almost immediately after birth was installed into the heartroom of a ship. Ngoc Ha talks about memories of the birth, the smell of blood and machine oil, so there is something mechanical about the Minds, but they are also genetically designed by the Grand Masters from human DNA. The decision to bear the Mind was not Ha's, it was imposed on her by the Empress, and even though she is aware she should, she can't bring herself to have any maternal feelings for The Turtle's Golden Claw. The opposite is true for the Mind. She has great affection for her mother, as well as her two grandmothers, the Empress and Bach Cuc.

Diem Huong is obsessed with the Citadel, wanting desperately to find it so she can reunite with her mother. She has been working with another engineer, Tran Thi Long Lam, who believes the ship is lost either in the "deep spaces" (probably what previous writers have called hyperspace), or else in time. Huong's father is concerned about the work they are doing, thinking it is dangerous and might cause his daughter to disappear too. He brings his concerns to the Thousand-Heart Princess, who refers him to Bach Cuc, who investigates on her own. Is that what caused her disappearance? She had removed her mem-implants, which leads Suu Nuoc to deduce she needed sharp focus without distractions. We learn in this story that the mem-implants are not just internal to each user, or at least not in the case of the Empress. Her multiple ancestors not only speak to her, they can also be projected holographically, visible and audible to others. Diem Huong, working on her own, is successful in passing through the portal of the device they have created, and finds herself on the Citadel. In the meantime, Suu Nuoc, Ngoc Ha, and The Turtle's Golden Claw speed toward the orbitals in the Scattered Pearls belt where Huong has been working. I've said too much already, but will add that some reunions occur, some people are recovered, others are lost, maybe forever, but I won't give details as to which situation applies to whom.

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As mentioned above, The Tea Master and the Detective won the Nebula for Best Novella earlier this year, came in second in the Locus vote, and is up for a Hugo on its own, in addition to its part in the complete series nomination. Other nods are for British Fantasy and World Fantasy awards, winners of which will be revealed later this year (PS: It won British Fantasy). Also noted above, these are science fiction, but with a strong fantasy atmosphere. The author has said it's no secret she intended this to be a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, but gender-flipped, with the tea master a stand in for Watson.

I'm not sure of the timeline of this one. There is mention of the rebellions five years before, but does that mean the rebellions from Red Station or Citadel? Not sure, nor does it matter. This takes place in the Scattered Pearls belt, the setting for the conclusion of Citadel, as well as in the deep spaces. The tea master is The Shadow's Child, a Mind on a transport ship, discharged from military duty due to trauma suffered during action, when all of her ship's crew and passengers were killed. Now she brews concoctions of tea and drugs, each brew needing to be uniquely formulated for every individual. In that sense, The Shadow's Child has to be just as much a detective as Long Chau, and in the beginning that's how I interpreted the characters, since Long Chau is the one who comes to The Shadow's Child for help. As learned in the previous story, the physical part of a Mind is installed in the heartroom of its ship, but it can project an avatar in other places. The Shadow's Child maintains a compartment in one of the Scattered Pearls habitats where she meets with clients. Long Chau comes to her for a brew that will enable her to enter the deep spaces and survive with mind intact. She is looking for a corpse to study the rate of degeneration in the deep spaces after death, which she claims is just one more of her never-ending studies that help in her chosen profession, that of a consulting detective. The Shadow's Child, being connected to information networks via the trance, is able to determine Long Chau's true identity, and she also comes to the conclusion the corpse they find was not randomly selected, but rather has a connection to Long Chau's past.

It is difficult deciding which of these stories I enjoyed more, so I won't choose, and I've rated all of them 4 stars on Goodreads. Each is worth more than that, none less, and except for a few minor details they all come close to a 5. They all have to be considered pieces of the puzzle, and if and when Aliette completes the series, we should be able to view them differently. For now there are a few things that limit their success, brief mentions of events, off stage as it were, that cry out for more information. It's like a story of one village without knowing what's going on in the next village over, let alone how they tie into the history and future of the country and world of which they're a part. I also have a few minor quibbles about how the technologies are described. The deep spaces could be like hyperspace has been used elsewhere, but at one point The Shadow's Child says she does not need to move her ship to enter the deep spaces, yet she used her engines to maneuver within those spaces. When Diem Huong went through the portal and found herself on the Citadel, it's not clear if it's in the deep spaces or some other realm, perhaps a pocket time dimension, or whether both of those situations apply, or possibly neither description is accurate. Again, those are just minor complaints, they didn't inhibit my enjoyment, and I'm anxious to read more. The prose is beautifully lyrical, which reflects a culture that honors scholarship, knowledge, poetry. The fact that culture is different than the one of which I'm a part only means it is different, but not less than, not inferior to what I'm accustomed. It's up to me to immerse myself in it, learn more about the culture and its traditions, try to understand it, to empathize with the characters. Aliette de Bodard makes that very easy to do.

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Posted September 30, 2020
Seven of Infinities, a new Xuya novella, will be released in one month, October 31, 2020. I received an ARC from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. The publisher is Subterranean Press, which offers high quality, limited hardcover editions, but they usually announce e-books either just before, or shortly after the initial release. [UPDATE: It's now availalbe to pre-order for Kindle.] The setting is once again the Scattered Pearls Belt, and since the previous rebellion of five years prior is mentioned, I assume this takes place around the same time as Tea Master, or shortly after. It is a mystery involving several characters who have pasts they wish to remain hidden, but is that possible, or wise, when there is a possibility of a romantic relationship?

Vn is a hopeful scholar, a tutor to Uyn, whose mother was a war hero, thus Uyn and her second mother were granted a pension which enables her to prepare for imperial examinations. Vn's secret is that her mem-implant is not one of her own ancestors, instead it is a fabrication of several different people's memories, which Vn created when she was a student. In addition to being a tutor, Vn also participates in a poetry club. Another member of the club is the mindship Wild Orchid in Sunless Woods, who surprises Vn one day by showing up uninvited at the rooms she shares with Uyn. Sunless Woods is projecting her avatar into the habitat. Many mindships use a miniature version of the ship they inhabit as their avatar, while Sunless Woods prefers to appear as a woman. When she tells Vn that others in the club have been having discussions about her, she is near panic thinking someone has discovered her secret, that Laureate An Thnh is not her ancestor. She fears if that is revealed she will not only lose her tutoring job, she won't be able to sit for examinations herself, and quite possibly will be punished for the forgery. Sunless Woods has a secret of her own, but I won't reveal that.

Sunless Woods is at least able to ease Vn's anxiety a bit, saying the other club members merely think of her as vulgar, not knowledgeable enough, not worthy of being in the club. During the visit, another woman comes into the apartment, someone unknown to Vn, but she's there to see Uyn. Vn and Sunless Woods continue their chat, but are interrupted by Uyn's panicked declaration that her visitor is dead. Sunless Woods quickly examines the body, discovering the woman has the brand of "thief" on both arms, meaning she is, or was, a recidivist. Sunless Woods volunteers to investigate further, knowing that if left to the militia alone, both Uyn and Vn could be implicated in murder, and/or, if the mysterious woman had associates, they may be out for revenge. That secret Sunless Woods has includes knowledge of many on the habitat, and elsewhere, who can aid in her investigation, and being a ship she is able to take Vn to a location that might reveal further clues. Even before Vn discovers the mindship's secret, she finds out Sunless Woods can project more than just an image avatar, she is also able to touch and feel. At first she is uneasy about that, then realizes Sunless Woods' touch is comforting, reassuring. Is what they had just sex, or was affection involved? Could it possibly be love?

Can Vn overlook the mindship's secret she later discovers? Can she be convinced that the lies Sunless Woods later tells were merely to deflect their antagonist's attention, to protect Vn from being used as a hostage? I choose to believe she can forgive, although it may take time. If Uyn has anything to say about it she will. Uyn proves that she is not only intelligent and destined to pass her examinations with ease, she also exhibits the courage of her fallen mother. As with the other novellas, I rate this one 4 stars. All are very well written, with lyrical prose and intriguing characters and plots, yet I wish they each were longer. I want more background, more information about each character, how they got to where they are, how their experiences connect to the history of Xuya as a whole. That's not a criticism of anything Aliette gives us, just a longing for a broader view. One of these days I'll re-read these novellas, and as many of the other stories I can track down, immerse myself completely in the remarkable Xuya Universe. You should too.

 

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Author
Aliette de Bodard

Published
2012-2020

Awards
Detailed in review

Amazon Links:
Red Station
Citadel
Tea Master
Seven of Infinities

Bookshop Links:
Citadel
Seven of Infinities

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