An unusual genre-bender set in de Bodard’s Xuya Universe. It combines sci-fi, a murder mystery and a bit of romance, wrapped in the feel of a structured Vietnamese society. The Xuya Universe is a loose collection of stories set in a future and alternate universe where Asia is dominant and sentient mindships are part of familial timelines (link for de Bodard’s brief explanation). I have The Tea Master and the Detective in my collection, so I was sure this was going to be equally interesting.
One day the scholar Vân has an unexpected visit from a respected member of her poetry group, the mindship The Wild Orchid in Sunless Woods. Many people in this culture have ancestor mind implants, reminiscent of imagos in Memory of Empire, but Vân’s is illegal and discovery of it would mean social exile. Meanwhile, her charge, the teenager Uyên, has her own unexpected–but unknown–visitor. By the time Uyên returns from making the visitor tea, the visitor has mysteriously died. Sunless Woods involves herself to prevent Van from running afoul of the militia and because she might just be a bit bored.
I didn’t know what to expect, which was kind of wonderful. It feels a little darker than some of the other Xuya stories, with Vân carrying a lot of guilt about her past that continues to impact her ability to carry herself now. The characters developed quickly for a novella, and I felt like everyone had a little bit of good and interesting with the flaws. Sunless Woods has secrets of her own, and I spent a little bit of time wracking my brain trying to remember how mindships work.
“Her avatar was as unconventional as her name… it was a vaguely humanoid shape: at first glance, she appeared to have two arms and two legs and to be about Vân’s size, but whenever she moved Vân would catch a glimpse of something far, far larger00sleek and polished metal, the reflection of distant stars, and a feeling the room, the entire habitat were twisting and folding back on themselves, unable to contain the vastness of her.”
On the downside, there’s instant attraction between two of the leads, that results in a rather extreme insta-emotional connection. It’s a device that ordinarily doesn’t set that well with me, but I suppose the fact that one of the players has severe emotional baggage is part of it. At any rate, it plays out reasonably well, and there are a couple of moments that are truly sweet, along with truly poetic. de Bodard is pushing boundaries here.
“Up close, the hull looked as if a giant, distorted flower of metal had burst outwards from the heart of the ship–and behind that hold was a vast, profound darkness in which nothing lived or breathed, a silence more final than that of stars or planets. Vân toggled, with a flick of her fingers, the light on her own glider. It illuminated a large structure that looked like a hanger, with the scattered debris of shuttles, and a single bloodied thread linking each of them back to the ship.”
Yes, probably worth it, although you’ll get a better bargain with Kindle.
No, you don’t need to have read any stories in the Xuya Universe. It’s all quite self-contained, although some of the stories will tell you more or less about the mind-ships or the culture.
Yes, you’ll probably note that I liked it significantly better than To Be Taught, If Fortunate, another novella I read at the same time, even though I’m not crazy about romance. I thought it a challenging, interesting read with a lot of re-read potential as well. I’m glad I added such a beautiful edition to my personal library.