The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

The Red Scholar’s Wake is, by turns, a romance, a meditation on loss, a political intrigue, a story of starfaring pirates, an examination of parenthood, and a tale of interplanetary adventure. That sounds like a lot, maybe too much for fewer than 300 pages, so let me look at it from a slightly different angle. The Red Scholar’s Wake is the story of Xích Si, initially a captive of the Red Banner pirates, and Rice Fish (more fully, The Rice Fish, Resting, but the two-word form of her name is what de Bodard uses throughout the novel), a mindship. In the Xuya universe, a larger body of de Bodard’s work in which The Red Scholar’s Wake takes place, mindships are unions of humans with starfaring ships, mostly machine but with an organic person at the ship’s heart. Rice Fish and Xích Si (de Bodard uses both parts of her name throughout the novel) both use she/her pronouns.

The Red Scholar's Wake by Aliette de Bodard

Huân had been the Red Scholar, the leader of the Red Banner, and Rice Fish had been her wife. The very first sentence of the novel announces her death, making the rest of it both her wake in the sense of a mourning event and also the waves that her passing leave behind. Huân and Rice Fish had forged an alliance of five pirate banners, creating a sanctuary they call the Citadel, and enabling a certain amount of order and security for a people caught between two empires. The price of that security, though, has been curtailing some of their raiding and agreeing to live by rules internally. Not everyone is on board with that program, most notably Huân’s son Hố, who has risen to become leader of the Purple Banner. Rice Fish had been consort and aims to become leader of the Red Banner in her own right, but that is not guaranteed. She wants to secure her position and continue to build on Huân’s legacy.

Xích Si begins the story as a captive of the Red Banner, taken in a pirate raid, most of her shipmates killed, all of the other survivors prisoners likely to be sold into indenture. She has come to the attention of Rice Fish because she apparently has considerable skill with bots and her ship and, by extension, with other key technologies. Rice Fish needs those skills to discover who betrayed Huân and take that information to the banners’ council to secure her position as leader of the Red Banner. So Rice Fish offers Xích Si a marriage contract. I know. I nearly bounced out of the book at that point, which was the end of the first chapter.

It gets better, though. Despite the contrived connection, the interactions between Rice Fish and Xích Si are some of the best parts of the book, particularly in the early going. Each has hopes that she can barely admit to herself, let alone to the other, and yet admitting them is necessary to have any hope of resolving the dilemmas that both face. A reader can see that each needs what the other has to offer, and is set up to hope that they find a way to bridge the gaps between them. De Bodard also sets up some tension that Xích Si may be looking for a way to prevent pirates from preying on her home and might not care what that would do to Rice Fish. After all, Xích Si was kidnapped and left no choice but to enter into marriage. (Rice Fish muses to herself about consent in a section that feels both appended and very twenty-first Earth. She does not change the situation.)

De Bodard shows how Xích Si’s feelings toward pirate society change from fear and hatred to interest and something like respect as she sees more of it, particularly life in the Citadel. She sees children growing up without the kind of fear that was ever-present in her youth. She sees Rice Fish upholding a rule in favor of someone less powerful. She learns how many of the people in the Red Banner started as captives themselves and is reminded that she is not the only person with hidden hurts.

The secondary characters are just that, though. Their inner lives are gestured at, but not developed, even in the case of Rice Fish‘s closest adviser who has been with her for many years and might reasonably be expected to have views about a new consort. The sisters who take Xích Si away from the ship for a while and show her more of the life of the Citadel have mannerisms, but not much to do once they have assisted Xích Si. The Red Scholar’s Wake is very much Xích Si and Rice Fish‘s book; de Bodard shows their interior landscapes, their intimate scenes, the thoughts and feelings they can barely share with themselves. Everyone else gets rather short shrift.

I found that a particular problem with one of the principal antagonists, an officer in one of the empires bordering the pirate haven. At two key junctures, she acts in opposition to her own interests, and to the ruthlessness that has been ascribed to her. Once is possibly understandable as a way of building advantages for later, but two looks like the authorial hand reaching out to protect the protagonists. Maybe more knowledge of the character would have given more sense to her actions. Authorial choices of this sort left me wondering whether The Red Scholar’s Wake shouldn’t have been much longer and allowed de Bodard to show the cast and settings in greater detail — she does it mostly convincingly for Xích Si and Rice Fish — or more tightly focused on fewer themes and kinds of stories.

One thing that The Red Scholar’s Wake rather emphatically is not is a consideration of gender roles, except possibly by implication. De Bodard achieves this effect by erasing men almost completely from the story. If I have read correctly, there are two named male characters in the book, one of whom is a ship. The other, Hố, is the estranged son of the late Red Scholar. He is in the story to show the shortcomings of Huân’s and Rice Fish‘s parenting, and the consequences of those failures. As far as I remember, the two male characters do not speak to each other at all.

In the end, I found that The Red Scholar’s Wake landed in a bit of an uncanny valley for me: too freighted to be just a lightweight space opera adventure but not built with enough depth to bear the load that de Bodard is asking of it. Maybe it’s bringing the conventions of romance into a science fiction setting, and being unfamiliar with them I have missed how this book maps onto an established structure. Maybe it’s re-casting a well-known set of events from Vietnamese history or a familiar legend into a far-future mold. Maybe I missed something else.

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.