Adult · Book review · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight by Aliette de Bodard

45429770._sy475_Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight is a short story collection written by one of my favorite authors, Aliette de Bodard.

I knew I needed to read this when I got to know that there was an f/f novella in it – about Emmanuelle and Selene from the Dominion of the Fallen series, and really, the main reason I love them are the scenes of them I saw in various short stories and novellas, this one included – and it didn’t disappoint. I probably would have read this anyway because I always want more Xuya universe (and short stories set in space in general), but the fact that the novella wasn’t the only f/f story was also a nice surprise.

As one can guess from the title, most stories in Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight have something to do with a war. If you think this could be repetitive, it’s not, because these stories about war aren’t stories about battles, but about the repercussions of it. It’s about how war changes people on a personal level just as much as it can change a country, and about how war and diaspora influence a culture.
What I want the most from collections (and anthologies, too), is that they feel more than the sum of their parts, and that’s definitely true for this book. There’s a value in this multifaceted approach to a theme that one can’t get from reading all these stories individually in different moments.
So yes, this is about war, from many different angles, and yet it’s all but depressing. Some parts of it are definitely dark – I think this hits the darkest points in The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile and in The Waiting Stars, though The Jaguar House, In Shadow was also almost there, since it dealt with totalitarianism – but others aren’t, and the collection ends on a lighter note with the novella Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness, in which the main characters try to make a party work in the aftermath of the fall of House Silverspires. (By the way: all the scenes involving Morningstar were so funny. I’m kind of sorry for Emmanuelle, but… so funny)

Even then, not all stories deal primarily with war. The Dust Queen is about the role of pain in art, Pearl is a beautiful retelling of a Vietnamese lengend in space, and there are a few stories that are mostly about grief – Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight, which was a reread for me and my introduction to the Xuya universe, and A Salvaging of Ghosts – and some in which the main theme is colonization, my two favorite stories in here, Memorials and Immersion.
Memorials does talk about the aftermath of a war, and it’s about… pain-based tourism and voyeuristic portrayals of war, but it’s also a story about taking back the ways your culture is misrepresented, and about what you owe to your people. This one was so vivid that the first thing I think of when I think about this book are the food descriptions (especially the scene in which the aunts order chè ba màu).
Immersion is about globalization as a subtler form of colonization. It’s one of the stories that stands better on its own and it’s about how the colonizer’s interpretation of a culture can be prioritized, and about how people who are used to living as a part of the dominant culture assume their own as a default (the usual “I have no culture”) and so they try to reduce others to a few key points, the ones that feel the most different. About how this affects the people who are othered, and their sense of self, because being more similar to the dominant culture is seen as “progress” no matter what, and people end up hurting themselves in the attempt to assimilate. There’s a lot here and it deserves all the awards it got.

(Also, I didn’t mention it before because that’s true for basically everything Aliette de Bodard writes, but I think all the main characters are people of color, mostly but not only Vietnamese, and almost all of them are women.)

Since these stories have been written from 2010 to 2019, there are a few that feel dated. While I really liked The Shipmaker for being a bittersweet f/f story, the way it talked about being queer in a far-future space society and the way it accidentally conflated having an uterus with being a woman really made the fact that it was written in 2011 stand out.
Overall, while not every story worked for me on its own – that’s the way collection and anthologies go – I’m really satisfied with the collection as a whole, and I really appreciated seeing so many sides of the Xuya universe, which I previously mostly knew from the novellas. If I rated every story individually, I would have an average rating of 4.07, but this is worth more than that for me, and I rated it five stars on goodreads.

The Shipmaker – 4,5
The Jaguar House, in Shadow – 4,5
Scattered Along the River of Heaven – 2,5
Immersion – 5
The Waiting Stars – 2,5
Memorials – 5
The Breath of War – 3
The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile – 3,5
The Dust Queen – 4
Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight – 4,5
A Salvaging of Ghosts – 3
Pearl – 5
Children of Thorns, Children of Water – 5
Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness – 5

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Reviews: Space Opera Edition

19175494On a Red Station, Drifting is a novella set in the Xuya universe, the first according to publication order, and of course I unintentionally read this (companion) series backwards. It also ended up being my least favorite so far.
…which means I can tell you that this series gets better with each book.

This novella is a story about the repercussions of war on a space station. We do not actually see anything about the war, but we see how the station struggles with resources when more and more refugees come in. I thought this was a really interesting choice, and that’s one of the things I like the most about this series – it focuses on the stories we usually do not see in sci-fi books. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about space battles, but I also like to read about characters living their lives in space. This kind of point of view usually gets ignored.

It’s also a story about family and the way difficult circumstances tend to strain those bonds. Many of the characters in this story resent each other – Quyen is looking for control while the station’s AI is deteriorating, Linh is dealing with the consequences of choices made on a distant planet, and other characters are looking for escape, or desperately trying to challenge inequality with the wrong means.
The characters’ decisions were never unbelievable, but the constant clashes between them, paired with the (very short) length of this story, prevented me from ever really caring about anyone.

The main reason I didn’t like this story as much as the other two novellas was the way it talked about suicide. I don’t want to spoil anything, but what happened felt a lot like the usual “suicide is selfish” narrative. Now, I know the characters’ thoughts about that are both due to the fact that they were obviously upset and also to the way their culture thinks about suicide, but it still hurt to read. I wish I had know it was there, because now I kind of wish I hadn’t read it. I prefer to believe basic mental health awareness exists in space.

Anyway, I still really enjoyed many aspects of this book – mainly because I love the worldbuilding. It’s set in a Vietnamese space empire, and with every novella I get to know more about the details, from the way marriage is seen to the inequalities that exist in this universe. My favorite parts are always the ones that have to do with Minds, and the station’s AI was my favorite character in this book.

My rating: ★★★¼

TheCollapsingEmpireI thought I hated sci-fi books. That was before I decided to try the adult ones instead of limiting myself to YA, as YA sci-fi tends to disappoint me more often than not.

The Collapsing Empire is one of the books that helped me understand I actually love this genre, and I’m so glad I decided to pick it up. I may haven’t found a young adult book that gets the mix of politics, science and action right yet, but this one does. It’s also surprisingly easy to read, for an adult book heavy on politics. It’s violent, but it also made me laugh a lot.

The first time I read it, I rated this book a full five because I was surprised by how much I liked it. With this reread, I decided to lower it to 4.5: some of the character weren’t as developed or as interesting as they should have been.

It mainly follows three PoVs:
🌟 Cardenia Wu, the new empress, who is trying her best to rule a collapsing empire. Deserves better, but she’s kind of bland;
🌟 Marce Claremont, a physicist. He’s kind of a stereotypical character, as he’s a socially awkward, physically weak scientist, and while I didn’t feel strongly about him, I did end up liking him;
🌟 Kiva Lagos, merchant and disaster bisexual (it’s canon!) whose vocabulary is mainly composed by swear words. This would have been irritating in any other book, but not here – I loved her and her rude pragmatism a lot, she’s my favorite PoV character.

One thing that I missed the first time I read this book was the environmentalism. The empire is falling apart, but (most of) the people in power are either in denial or trying to make more money out of the situation, because priorities. It’s really entertaining how disgusting some people – like the villainous Nohamapetan family – can be in those situations, but the parallels with global warming aren’t as fun.

My rating: ★★★★½

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: The Citadel of Weeping Pearls by Aliette de Bodard

39684978The 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 (but some books of the 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: ★★★★

Book review · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

366865471The Tea Master and the Detective is a sci-fi Sherlock Holmes retelling in which Holmes is a woman and Watson is a sentient spaceship.
With a premise and a cover like these, I had to read this – and not only it lived up to my expectations, it surpassed them.

The Tea Master and the Detective is a standalone novella set in Bodard’s Xuya universe; you do not need to have read the other short stories and novellas to read this one, but reading this made me want to. It was as beautiful as it was short and a great introduction to this universe; now I will certainly look more into it.

The main characters of this book are the spaceship The Shadow’s Child, who is also the narrator, and Long Chau, a woman with a mysterious past and surprising deductive abilities. I loved both of them and their dynamic. Non-romantic relationships between humans and non-human (or: not exactly human anymore, in this case) sentient beings are one of my favorite things to read about. In this book there’s no romance at all, and it’s great to read about competent women in stories that have nothing to do with romance, women who are allowed to be cold and forthright without being portrayed as evil.

The worldbuilding was really interesting, and this novella made me want to know more about it. This is a universe in which spaceships are sentient and can travel through deep spaces (which are terrifying), and tea is an artThe Shadow’s Child is hired by Long Chau also because she’s a tea master and can brew tea tailored to Long Chau’s needs (to drink someone else’s tea can be dangerous).

There is a mystery element here, and it wasn’t too predictable, but that wasn’t why this book worked for me – the story of The Shadow’s Child finally confronting her fear after the traumatic event of a few years before and her conversations with Long Chau were the best parts.

My rating: ★★★★¾