In the age of fantasy books of ridiculous lengths–why, hello, Way of Kings–and series that may never be finished–ah-hem, George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss–I’ve rediscovered my love of novellas. de Bodard has written an intriguing, sure to be award-nominated novella about a mind-ship hired by a brilliant, drug-addicted woman who wants to retrieve a dead body for study. Naturally, it turns out that it was no mere space-accident that caused the untimely death. When the shipmind The Shadow’s Child, takes the job, she finds herself confronting her own past.
“But she’d lived through a war, an uprising and a famine, and she was done with diminishing herself to spare the feelings of others.”
I wasn’t expecting a Sherlock style construction, but the parallels soon became clear. Of course, it might have helped that I have been very slowly working my way through the recent Cumberbatch incarnation of Sherlock. Like the Moffat and Gatiss version, this somehow manages to retain a feeling of whimsy in the midst of fear, suspicion, self-doubt, and a mildly sociopathic lead. When I finished, I thought, “well, that was fun,” but fun is not the right word, not quite. ‘Satisfying’ might be better. It pays tribute to the Sherlock format but does something so very different that it feels very new.
As always, I enjoy de Bodard’s writing style. Complex and descriptive, well-suited to the challenge of the world and the story.
“A middle-aged woman, with loose, mottled skin hanging loose on rib cage and pelvic bone, her shape already compressed into improbably angles by the pressures of unreality around her–she’d had a shadow skin to survive the vacuum of normal space, but of course it wouldn’t have survived the plunge into deep spaces: the long, dark tatters of it streamed from her corpse like hair, or threads tying her to an impossibly distant puppet-master.”
I was very intrigued by the setting, a pan-Asian future world in which people use mind-ships to travel through the deep reaches of space, but the world-building feels just this side of under-done. Though I eventually felt I had a working handle on the mind-ships, it wasn’t early enough to make me feel like I understood all the subtext, or how A Shadow’s Child could be so damaged. I’m motivated to track down some of her other works in this universe and learn more. I know she can be talented at world building; the Obsidian and Blood series (my review for the first), set in the pre-Colombian Aztec Empire, is immersive and fascinating.
On re-reading, I think that characterization could be improved somewhat, to make this an outstanding. The Shadow’s Child ends up sounding a little too neurotic, with an ever-present anxiety. Anxious about money, about going into deep space, about the reliability of Long Chau, she felt barely functional or sympathetic. If you would like a reader to believe a ship can have a personality, it best be a semi-functional one, believable for competently managing existence through unseen depths of space and multiple human generations. In this, there is perhaps the most deviation from the Sherlock structure, with a Watson that is more irritably challenging and less an admiring echo.
The e-reader edition had some minor formatting issues that I would expect would be fixed, and a rare challenge in word choice or punctuation. More importantly, I’m not exactly sure if the science of the space stands up to reality (see streaming ribbons mentioned above), but I’m not one to be finicky about my space details. But I mention it for hard-core readers who might be.
I think this would appeal to sci-fi fans who might enjoy a solid Sherlock homage, or people who enjoy Liz Williams’ Detective Chen series. As a general aside–I don’t often say this; I know better by now, that I shouldn’t judge a book by the cover–but the cover art by Maurizio Manzieri is absolutely gorgeous. I ordered the hardcover edition just to have such book beauty on my shelves. And to re-read the story, of course.
Many thanks to Subterranean Press and NetGalley for an e-reader ARC.