Fiction Reviews

The Red Scholar’s Wake

(2022) Aliette de Bodard, Gollancz, £18.99, hrdbk, 294pp, ISBN 978-1-399-60172-8


This is both a love story and a pirate adventure, transposed from the South China Sea to interstellar space. It begins with Xích Si, a scavenger, pondering her fate after being captured by pirates of the Red Banner fleet. Fearing the worst, she is visited by an avatar of the mindship The Rice Fish, Resting, who makes her an offer she really can’t refuse – to be the ship’s wife, following the death of The Red Scholar. At first this is no more than a business arrangement - Xích Si gets protection, The Rice Fish, Restinggets some much-needed technical expertise in the hunt for her ex-wife’s killer. As the story unfolds, however, the relationship blossoms into respect and affection and then profound love, with all the joys and pitfalls that involves. And this is not simply cyber-love but is granted a form of embodiment through canny use of ‘bots’ and perceptual ‘overlays’. (The mindship also retains the remnants of a physical presence in her ‘heartroom’, the inclusion of which adds a gruesome flavour to the eroticism of their lovemaking.)

But of course, true love never runs smoothly and Xích Si and Rice Fish find themselves pulled in different directions: the scavenger heads out and beyond the pirate citadel in a desperate attempt to save her young daughter, threatened with being sold into indenture, which brings her sharply up against the forces of the An O empire; while the mindship steps cautiously inwards to the heart of pirate politics, where she encounters her son, dismissive and contemptuous of the vision of the future that his parents had been working towards. The subsequent actions of both Rice Fish and Xích Si reveal just how fragile both their relationship and that vision are, but after the collapse of both, with explosive consequences, a new way forward begins to emerge.

In stunning contrast to the brutality and violence, both individual and collective, is the gorgeous imagery which draws heavily on Vietnamese and South-East Asian aesthetics. Humans and mindship avatars alike wear beautiful robes adorned with tigers and nebulas, banyan trees and bitten-into peaches, while bots flit about like butterflies or wind sinuously across hands, and rooms and corridors are overlaid with poetic calligraphy and artwork. And as a backdrop throughout, there is the terrible majestic beauty of the Fire Palace, a fractured burning planet covered in incomprehensible ruins, full of Ashling artefacts ripe for plunder by merchants and to be stolen by the pirates.

Although personally I would have preferred the balance between love story and pirate adventure to tilt a little more one way than the other, it’s that inter-threading of the personal with the political, the prosaic with the dramatic, that makes this a book to be savoured – like the mouth-watering dumplings that, at crucial points, brilliantly pin this spectacular space opera back down to the everyday.

Steven French


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