The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard
Gollancz, HB, £18.99
Reviewed by Michael Dodd
Pirates, politics, sentient ships and unlikely romance all collide in Aliette de Bodard’s sapphic space opera The Red Scholar’s Wake. Captured by bloodthirsty pirates, the last thing scavenger Xich Si expects is a marriage proposal and the prospect of a new life as an outlaw. Her talents as a bot controller make her the ideal (business) partner for the grieving mindship Rice Fish though, who offers her protection in exchange for helping to find who killed the Red Scholar, Rice Fish’s wife and the leader of the pirate banner. Reluctantly agreeing, Xich Si is soon entangled in complex piratical politics as she and Rice Fish try to steer their banner to safety while learning to work together and understand the fragile dynamic they’re slowly building together.
Part of de Bodard’s fascinating Xuya universe, this is a standalone novel that doesn’t require any prior knowledge and, in fact, acts as a great introduction to this expansive, Vietnamese-inspired sci-fi setting. In keeping with the universe’s general tone and feel, it’s recognisably a space opera but one that’s concerned less with technological explanations or detailed histories and more with character dynamics, relationships and compelling cultural observations. As such, the central romance feels entirely believable, despite the physical differences between Xich Si and Rice Fish. In fact, physical differences are the least of their worries, with the uneven power dynamic between the two of them proving a much more complex hurdle to overcome, not to mention Xich Si’s fear and disgust at the prospect of pirate life, and Rice Fish’s own complicated mixture of grief, anxiety and confusion.
The ups and downs of this unconventional relationship are beautifully woven into a piratical power struggle that cleverly illustrates and exemplifies the political and societal intricacies of life for these characters. With more tense political and social manoeuvring than rip-roaring action, events progress at a pace that maintains momentum while allowing plenty of time to revel in the texture and wonder of this rich, fascinating setting. De Bodard’s Vietnamese heritage runs through everything, from couture and cuisine to complex social relationships and hierarchies, adding depth and detail to character dynamics, cool technologies and more. With a unique world, a thought-provoking plot and a fragile, achingly believable relationship forming against the odds in the midst of rampant inequality and ever-present danger, this is a perfect novel for readers wanting emotional complexity, warmth and heartache in their space opera.