The Citadel of Weeping Pearls is the second novella set in the Xuya universe I’ve read. It follows many different characters as they try to piece together a mystery: is the disappearance of deep space scientist Bach Cuc tied to the space citadel that vanished thirty years before, together with all its inhabitants and princess Ngoc Minh?
The Citadel of Weeping Pearls is a very unique story for its genre. It’s a story about family, especially about the way relationships between mothers, daughters and sisters can develop. It’s a quiet space opera, beautifully written, and underrated – I feel like most novellas don’t get the recognition they deserve, especially the ones that aren’t already tied to popular series or from tor.com (but some books of the tor.com novella line are underrated too).
We follow four perspectives:
✴ Suu Nuoc, one of the Empress’ former lovers. He was a general and is now an officer in the Purple Forbidden City on the First Planet. He is investigating Bach Cuc’s disappearance with the help of the spaceship The Turtle’s Golden Claw. I didn’t have any strong feelings about him but I loved the mindship, and that was the main reason I liked his perspective.
✴ Diem Huong lost her mother in the Citadel’s disappearance when she was six. She is now an engineer, working with disorganised genius Lam (women in science!) to find the citadel again. Her story is about understanding her mother’s choices.
✴ Mi Hiep is the Empress of the Dai Viet Empire. Through her perspective we see court intrigue, the beginning of a war, and the many difficult choices a ruler has to make. She had a very complicated relationship with her older daughter, and it ended in disaster and mystery.
✴ Thousand-Heart Princess Ngoc Ha is the mother of The Turtle’s Golden Claw and Ngoc Minh’s younger sister. She is a complex, flawed character who has always felt overshadowed by the other people in her family, and has mixed feelings on both Ngoc Minh’s possible return and her mindship daughter.
I had already noticed this in The Tea Master and the Detective, but I love the worldbuilding in this series. Not only it’s about a Vietnamese space empire, the technology is unique– this is a place where people can give birth to Minds (the AIs of spaceships), where people can travel through deep spaces (in which time and maybe some other things have no meaning) or even disappear in them, where an Empress can ask her ancestors for advice through mem-implants, and sometimes said ancestors give unrequited advice too.
I’ve never seen anything similar to this, and it’s a fascinating world.
Another thing I liked about the worldbuilding was how being queer was normalized. Yes, Ngoc Minh had a reputation of being a rebel princess both because she had mysterious powers and because she disobeyed the Empress and married her wife even though she was a commoner (and her status, not her gender, was the problem).
Onto the things I did not like: this is the third book I’ve read by this author, and while I always like her characters, love the wordbuilding, the descriptions and even the set up of the plot, I never like the way she ends the story. I’m not sure whether it’s a matter of flawed writing or writing that just isn’t my taste. One time the ending felt understated, one time it felt pointless, and this time it made this novella feel like a story that was cut in half, except the second half does not exist.
I also thought the “mystery” of the citadel was obvious, but the resolution still felt too abrupt – while this ending did have emotional impact in two of the PoVs, it had little in the Empress’ (which has other things to think about, a war we will never see) and in Suu Nuoc’s, who didn’t know Ngoc Minh and didn’t care about anyone in the citadel. On the other hand, this ending must have had an impact on the mindship The Turtle’s Golden Claw, who was really invested in what happened, but we never see how she feels because we do not have her PoV.
My rating: ★★★★