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ARC Review: The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

Publication Date: November 24, 2022

Synopsis:

Xích Si: bot maker, data analyst, mother, scavenger. But those days are over now-her ship has just been captured by the Red Banner pirate fleet, famous for their double-dealing and cruelty. Xích Si expects to be tortured to death-only for the pirates’ enigmatic leader, Rice Fish, to arrive with a different and shocking proposition: an arranged marriage between Xích Si and herself.

Rice Fish: sentient ship, leader of the infamous Red Banner pirate fleet, wife of the Red Scholar. Or at least, she was the latter before her wife died under suspicious circumstances. Now isolated and alone, Rice Fish wants Xích Si’s help to find out who struck against them and why. Marrying Xích Si means Rice Fish can offer Xích Si protection, in exchange for Xích Si’s technical fluency: a business arrangement with nothing more to it.

But as the investigation goes on, Rice Fish and Xích Si find themselves falling for each other. As the interstellar war against piracy intensifies and the five fleets start fighting each other, they will have to make a stand-and to decide what kind of future they have together…

An exciting space opera and a beautiful romance, from an exceptional SF author.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I love Aliette de Bodard’s books, but they are probably the most intellectually challenging books I read on a regular basis. Especially the mindship books. I think on the one hand there’s the Vietnamese-inspired names and foods and customs which are so different than what I’m used to (a good thing! Reading is for expanding one’s horizons!) and on the other hand there’s the whole human-falls-in-love-with-a-sentient-spaceship oh and also there is the physical plane and then there are overlays and avatars and bots that have physical form but can also be used a lot like coding but you can (I think) think the commands at them and have the information appear directly in your brain rather than having to rely on a pesky computer, oh and you can simultaneously have conversations out loud and other conversations virtually in your head — and my brain refuses to make sense of it all. I don’t regularly read a lot of sci-fi, so there’s that. I generally spend the first third of these books trying to wrap my head around how it all works and the next two thirds slowly sinking into the story and becoming immersed in it while the details stop being so confusing and fade to the background. And falling in love with the story and characters and romance

Aliette de Bodard’s writing is poetic and evocative and also understated, with a tendency to leave things unsaid for the reader to infer. This, too, takes a bit to get used to, but I really love it. I don’t especially like having everything spoon-fed to me all the time, and while I read and love a lot of ‘easier’ fantasy and romance, I appreciate having to really engage my brain to pick up on most of what’s happening. (I’m sure I don’t pick up on all of it.)

Some of the descriptions, especially of Rice Fish’s avatar, with her hair flowing into the floor of the ship and patterned with stars and nebulae, were so satisfying and just gorgeous. I had trouble with a mental picture of the characters (other than Rice Fish), but I think that’s just me — I rarely get a clear mental picture of characters in the books I read. I did get a clear picture of the Pirate Citadel – enough that I felt like I was there, walking beside Xích Si and experiencing it with her.

This is first and foremost a romance, one between a human who has been beaten down for years living on the edge of getting by as a scavenger, and a sentient spaceship who is also an influential leader of a pirate faction in a society she helped to build and carries deep emotional wounds left by her murdered wife, however unintentionally.

Xích Si, the scavenger, has been captured by pirates at the opening of the book and is forced to leave everything she knows – including her young daughter – behind. She understandably is scared and angry and fears the worst. Rice Fish, the mindship she is travelling on and head of the pirate faction who captured her, shocks her by proposing marriage — a ‘business arrangement only.’ Together they face a rebellious son, an endangered daughter, authorities determined to erase the scourge of pirates, treachery from within, and questions of the future of the entire pirate alliance. Not to mention their own bruised and bleeding hearts.

They make mistakes, they hurt one another, and — they learn. They learn to love, they learn to trust, they learn to hope and dream again and how to heal themselves. And the journey of how they get to that point is beautiful.

I would like to add that I have seen some criticism of ace rep in this book and I strongly disagree. I would not categorize Rice Fish’s murdered wife as ace, no matter that she did not want the physical aspect of the relationship that Rice Fish did. It’s not that simple. It was mentioned several times that she took her lovers outside of the marriage partnership (“Huan, for her part, had collected flings the way scholars collected books and vids”, “I watched Ma collect her friends and lovers and never get the intimacy she craved”) — she just did not want such a relationship with Rice Fish. I don’t know whether it was that she simply was not attracted to Rice Fish that way or whether she truly believed that any physical / romantic relationship between them would sully the partnership and what they were trying to build. But I think criticizing it for “bad ace rep” misses the point and is not fair. (Disclaimer: I am ace and I wanted to address this criticism because I have seen it more than once.)

The scenes with Xích Si’s daughter, and some with Rice Fish’s son, tug at the heartstrings. Alliette de Bodard knows how to use a few brushstrokes to create poignant, touching family scenes. I appreciate them more, I think, since having a child myself. It’s clear that she gets what it’s like, having to guide a child and be strong for them but also show yourself to be vulnerable, and eventually to let them go.

Even though this is a romance, it’s very politics-heavy. The different factions within the pirate fleet, the warring empires, the scavengers and wealthier scholars and beaurocrats… There is a lot of information to unpack and a lot of things that aren’t quite said out loud that are perhaps easy to miss. At first, it is very hard to grasp what is going on, which actually makes a lot of sense, as Xích Si is also unfamiliar with how the pirate fleet functions and also struggles to grasp it all. She learns and becomes more comfortable with it as the reader does, which makes it easy to identify with her.

Despite the heaviness of the themes (indentured servants are discussed quite a bit from several perspectives, as well as raiding and capturing merchants to hold for ransom, as well as emotional trauma and pain) and the dense, somewhat obscure way the text is written, and the sci-fi aspects, this also has quite a bit of adventure and mystery. I spent the last 40% or so on the edge of my seat wondering how it would all go down. I came away knowing that I absolutely loved and will recommend it, while at the same time I will need to read an easier book next just to give my brain a break.

*Thanks to NetGalley, Gollancz, and JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc. for providing an advance copy for review.

Favorite Quotes:

She was still kneeling, but she did it like an empress.

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

Rice Fish nodded, and said nothing more — and for a time that felt like ten thousand years, they remained side by side, looking at the stars.

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

A pirate consort – no, a pirate queen in her own domain, and she was beautiful and she was terrible and so, so vulnerable in that moment. The air trembled with a distant music, a distant heartbeat.

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

Tam looked sheepish, which was a whole look on a pirate with a gun in her belt.

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

Xích Si sipped the tea – it tasted like fungi, like the greenhouses after the watering cycle, muddy and damp and unexpectedly sour.

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

…and every time she looked at him, Xích Si fought her own instincts to jump for the nearest suit – he looked like a walking habitat breach.

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

Xích Si realised that had been her, once upon a time. That she’d kept her head down and not dared to dream large, because she knew she would always get kicked in the teeth.

It wasn’t the habitat that was smaller. It was that she had outgrown it.

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

“Yes. But that’s not what matters. It’s being afraid and doing it anyway. And…” She hesitated, but what else could she do other than fling herself bodily into the void. “Love means we’re always going to know how to hurt each other. We choose not to. Or to repair our hurts”

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

But it was his choice to make, and he was her son, not an extension of her.

So often, being a parent was about letting go.

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard
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