The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
The Tea Master and the Detective (2018), a novella nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo awards, is a delightful revisiting of the legendary Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson … if both were Asian women, and Watson was a genetically modified human that is the brains and heart of a transport warship. It’s set in Aliette de Bodard’s UNIVERSE OF XUYA ― also nominated for a Hugo for Best Series ― a “timeline where Asia became dominant, and where the space age has Confucian galactic empires of Vietnamese and Chinese inspiration,” per the author’s website.
The Shadow’s Child, a mindship, is suffering from long-term trauma after a tragedy led to the death of her crew and her own near-loss in the “deep spaces.” Discharged from military service several years ago, she’s barely able to support herself by concocting tea blends that contain individualized mixes of drugs enabling humans to withstand the weirdness and unreality of deep spaces, where mindships can travel faster than light. A new client, Long Chau, asks The Shadow’s Child for an unusual tea blend, one that will leave her functional in the deep spaces, so she can find a human corpse ― any corpse ― for her scientific study. The corpse they find (there are a fair number of dead mindships and human corpses floating around in the deep spaces) turns out to have died an unnatural death, and Long Chau’s curiosity is engaged. She begins an investigation, confident that she can achieve better results than the magistrate assigned to the case, and The Shadow’s Child is somewhat reluctantly pulled in as Long Chau’s assistant.
The worldbuilding in The Tea Master and the Detective is stellar. De Bodard has put a lot of thought and imagination into her Xuya universe, which consists of some thirty novellas and short stories at this point. So many of the details are unforgettable: the shipminds’ use of projected avatars to represent themselves in society; tiny, utilitarian bots hanging in a “jeweled cascade” from a woman’s shoulders or crawling on Long Chau’s face to send data back to The Shadow’s Child; a virtual reality display of food on a table where two shipminds are visiting, so they can enjoy the memories of long-ago feasts and friends. These and other vivid details made me feel truly immersed in this world.
I first encountered de Bodard’s mindships in her wonderful Nebula award-winning novelette The Waiting Stars. The Shadow’s Child sheds a different light on these mindships, her wounded soul underscoring the dangers that face the intelligent mindships themselves as well as their passengers. There are a few nods here to the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet; Long Chau introduces herself as a “consulting detective” and has a drug addiction; The Shadow’s Child is still experiencing pain from armed conflicts in her past (echoing Dr. Watson’s health problems stemming from his participation in the Anglo-Afghan war).
The mystery relating to the corpse Long Chau and The Shadow’s Child find in the deep spaces is less memorable than the characters and the setting; I thought it was the weakest link in this story. A better mystery lies in Long Chau’s shrouded past, which The Shadow’s Child doggedly investigates on the side, especially after Long Chau dissects the shipmind’s psychological trauma with a few brief sentences. Long Chau’s deductions are worthy of Sherlock Holmes, using small scraps of evidence that most would overlook.
I’d love to see what further mysteries and adventures await Long Chau and The Shadow’s Child, but de Bodard has said (in an email to me) that they’re more likely to reappear as cameos than as the main characters in a future story. So I recommend that you get your Holmesian fix here in The Tea Master and the Detective, especially if you enjoy detective fiction or mysteries set in space.