Hugo 2019 Novellas: The Tea Master & The Detective by Aliette de Bodard

I am always on-board for a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche. The nature of analogy and structure of ideas is something that fascinates me and the way writers can play on the elements of Holmes to create quite different texts that are nonetheless recognisable parts of the sub-genre. There is a deep aspect of sentience, art and logic revealed in our capacity to create and recognise these patterns that I suspect Sherlock Holmes would have also found intriguing.

The Tea Master & The Detective has its own unique mystery to solve but it initially mirror A Study in Scarlet, bringing its Holmes-analogue together with its narrating Watson-analogue together. The Watson figure is still a war veteran scarred by their experience (and struggling with the emotional repercussions of those experiences — an element that has become common in modern adaptations). The Holmes figure is still a consulting detective driven by a forensic intellectual curiosity. Aliette de Bodard takes those elements and shifts them radically. The Holmes figure, aside from a gender swap, is a conventional Holmes character: hyper-focused, exploiting drugs for cognitive improvements and using tangential deductions to surprise people.

The Watson figure is something else: a huge, former military space craft called The Shadow’s Child. The ship now spends her day as a projected avatar on a space habitat, where she makes a living mixing psychoactive teas, with her ship-self orbiting in space. A traumatic war time experience in a kind of hyperspace dimension called “Deep Spaces” has caused her to reject working as a transport craft but her work mixing tea is barely covering the rent for her office.

An appointment with the scholar Long Chau (the Holmes analogue) pulls The Shadow’s Child into a mystery involving a religious order, all within de Bodard’s existing Xuya universe.

The novella is an entertaining mystery with familiar(ish) characters and a novel setting. The Shadow’s Child is subtle picture of a complex artificial intelligence reminiscent of Iain Bank’s Culture ships or Anne Leckie’s Ancillary series. I particularly like that in a human/AI detective team pairing, that it is the AI that is the humanistic one, and the human is the deductive and often insensitive one.

I haven’t read any of the other Xuya-set works by de Bodard but that wasn’t impediment to enjoying this self-contained story. The background culture is sketched out sufficiently to recognise the mix of space-empire tropes with elements of East Asian cultures without the text having to belabour features of the setting. The pastiche elements are used to efficiently establish the key character dynamic and the kind of narrative on offer but avoid being forced, hackneyed or descending into parody.

A very nicely executed story.

2 thoughts on “Hugo 2019 Novellas: The Tea Master & The Detective by Aliette de Bodard

  1. It’s a while since I read this but I think it narrowly missed out on making my nominations.
    I think you’re spot on about the pastiche level – enough to be recognisable and inform the relationships, not so much as to be silly or just imitative.

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