The Citadel of Weeping Pearls by Aliette de Bodard
Aliette de Bodard’s UNIVERSE OF XUYA series of novellas and short stories has been nominated for Best Series in the 2019 Hugo awards, for very good reason. The detailed worldbuilding and thoughtful writing pull the reader into a world with an alternative history, where Chinese ships were the first to discover the Americas, drastically changing our history and leading to a space age future where Chinese and Vietnamese galactic empires hold great power and intelligent mindships interact with humans outside of the ship through projected avatars. De Bodard’s website has an extremely useful page that includes a brief description of the Xuya (“Dawn Shore”) universe and a handy chronology listing all of her XUYA tales.
The Citadel of Weeping Pearls (2017), one of the novellas in this series, takes place in the Dai Viet Empire. Thirty years before this story begins, the Citadel, a space station headed up by the Bright Princess Ngoc Minh, Empress’s oldest and favorite daughter and her heir, was a place of technological wonders: tiny but immensely powerful weapons, teleporting inhabitants, and more. The Empress, furious at her daughter’s ongoing defiance (including not sharing these weapons), had sent her ships to destroy the Citadel, but when they arrived the Citadel and all of its inhabitants had mysteriously vanished.
Now the Empire is threatened by an invading fleet of ships from the Nam Federation, which appears to have discovered a way to hijack the brains of the Empire’s mindships, their biggest advantage in war. The Empress is in more need of the Citadel’s weapons than ever before, and the Empire’s scientists may have found a way to use the mysterious aspects of deep space to revisit the past.
The focus of The Citadel of Weeping Pearls is as much on interpersonal relationships as it is the mystery of the Citadel’s disappearance and the search for a method to find it again. De Bodard examines the sometimes difficult bonds and relationships between mothers and daughters and sisters: the Empress regrets her falling out with her eldest daughter Ngoc Minh; the Empress’s youngest daughter, Ngoc Ha, tries to come to terms with her tense relationship with her own daughter, the mindship The Turtle’s Golden Claw, and her lingering jealousy of her older sister Ncog Minh. The Turtle’s Golden Claw is helping with the search for the Citadel and the newly vanished Grand Master Bach Cuc, the mindship’s paternal grandmother, who was one of those searching for the Citadel’s trail. Meanwhile, engineer Diem Huong, whose mother vanished with the Citadel when Diem Huong was six years old, is part of a team working on an experimental time machine, and she desperately hopes to use it to find her mother again.
The Citadel of Weeping Pearls is a slower-paced and somewhat opaque novella, with a large and sometimes confusing array of characters (all of the Vietnamese names were, I’m afraid, a slight challenge for me to keep straight). But it’s also a beautifully written, bittersweet mystery in a wonderfully imaginative space setting. Readers who are patient and attentive will be amply rewarded by reading this novella.