The Tea Master and the Detective introduced me to Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya universe, an interstellar setting that sprang from an alternate Earth history in which East Asian powers and cultures dominated the age of discovery and thus also the leap into space. Her web site says that the more recent stories are influenced by Vietnamese history and culture, while some of the earlier ones were written about future empires with Chinese characteristics.
I do not know enough particulars of Vietnamese history to have spotted any influences beyond a couple of names, but that did not seem important because the story is tightly focused rather than broadly sweeping. The titular characters are analogs of Watson and Holmes, a parallel that becomes crystal clear at the latest a third of the way through when Long Chau says that she is a consulting detective. Structurally, then, The Tea Master and the Detective is an origin story, telling how the two come together, establishing their relationship, showing their individual characters, and discovering whether they can work together. Aficionados of Holmes and Watson will surely be able to spot more parallels than were apparent to me. Holmes’ drug habit was there, and I think de Bodard’s detective draws at least as much on recent portrayals of Holmes as a high-functioning sociopath as on Arthur Conan Doyle. Her Watson’s war wounds are of a different nature, but then her Watson is the mind of a starship, The Shadow’s Child, and identifies as female. She also provides the tale’s point of view.
De Bodard’s portrayal of space travel reminds me of Cordwainer Smith’s, with near space mentally unsettling to many humans, and the unreality of deep space, through which trips move to exceed the speed of light, causing madness and eventual death. The minds of the ships start as human but are sufficiently different to withstand the rigors of unreality. Ships have their own society, which is linked to human civilization, but also separate from it. While Long Chau can find information through human sources and networks, plus her prodigious powers of deduction, The Shadow’s Child draws on the resources of the ships’ interactions and webs of obligation.
I also wondered whether The Tea Master and the Detective wasn’t a bit of an extended riff on the NutriMatic drinks machine, as featured in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Customized drinks, produced by minute examination of a human’s physiology, can, among other things, help them deal with the effects of space. The Shadow’s Child prepares such brews, having largely given up on actual space travel for reasons that are sketched in the story, and from the descriptions of the ingredients, it’s easy to think that they are almost but not quite entirely unlike tea.
The case in question concerns a corpse that’s found in near space, in a place and condition that it should not be in. Long Chau and The Shadow’s Child work through some of their mutual animosities — and The Shadow’s Child shows that she is no slouch at investigating – over the course of unraveling how the unfortunate person wound up where she did. The resolution exposes more of Long Chau’s background. She is less mysterious at the end, but she is still clearly out of the ordinary.
I finished The Tea Master and the Detective satisfied with the story, and wanting to learn more about the universe in which it is set. The larger body of work is also a Hugo finalist this year in the Best Series category. I think it’s time for me to go exploring.