Linh was a magistrate on the 23rd Planet when war came. She escaped to Prosper Station on a ship full of refugees, waiting until all of the others’ papers were checked before introducing herself to the authorities. “Magistrate” is a position of considerable power in Linh’s universe, and when her identity is verified by reference to the station computers, she is taken to Quyen, the woman who runs the station. The two women take an instant dislike to one another, thus setting the stage for everything that follows.
Linh and Quyen are of Vietnamese heritage, in a world in which the Dai Viet — the Vietnamese dynasties, beginning with the rule of Lý Thánh Tông in 1054 — stayed in power until the space age, and then spread out among the stars. Their technology allows them to keep their ancestors with them in a very real way. Linh, for instance, has memory implants of six of her ancestors, and feels their presence so keenly that it is becoming difficult for her to tell the voices of the implants from that of her own mind, a common side-effect of being very good at using them. Prosper Station is managed by a Mind that takes the personality of an honoured ancestress.
Quyen has managerial control of the station by default. She was sent to the station in order to be married, to broker a trade alliance and act as a brood mare. She failed the examinations that might have given her a different life, examinations that Linh clearly passed. Quyen’s husband has been called away by the necessities of the war, and has been gone for so long that Quyen has almost forgotten the sound of his voice. This has left her in charge of the station, a position for which she has no training but fulfills well. What she perceives as Linh’s arrogance rubs her the wrong way, and rather than finding her a suitable position on the station, she relegates her to tutoring her nieces. It is an insult; such positions are normally filled by those who haven’t gone beyond the Provincial or Planetary examination, not by those who have passed the Metropolitan Exam and received her posting from the hands of the Emperor himself. And Linh fully appreciates the insult.
Everything is ripe for complication, especially when we learn that the Ancestress who serves as the station computer is failing; and even more so when we learn that Linh has made known her views about the Emperor’s execution of the war.
This novella, one of the six nominated for a Nebula Award this year, is intricately plotted and well-written. It suffers, however, from too many subplots and a failure to fully explain the motivations of the characters. In particular, we are told that Quyen and Linh dislike each other immediately, but the reasons for this dislike are not spelled out clearly. Perhaps de Bodard depended on her setting to give us this information; that is, perhaps their respective positions in society predispose them to a mutual dislike. But this is not sufficiently explained as an emotional matter, even if it is described as an intellectual one. Both women are usually cold and unemotional in their dealing with others, most especially in their dealings with each other, making them hard to like.
Still, one is surprised to learn that de Bodard is a trained engineer, because her knowledge of the Dai Viet and Vietnamese culture make one think she is an anthropologist. Given that she has written three novels set in an alternate world in which Mexico is ascendant, and a number of short stories in which a pre-Communist China is dominant, one expects her to have a degree in world history, at the very least, under her belt. Her attention to detail is exquisite. It will be interesting to see what she tackles next.