Have you ever wondered how the stories of Sherlock Holmes would look if Watson was a living spaceship and the eponymous detective was an Asian woman, and the whole thing were set in a sprawling space operatic world? To be honest, neither had I, but the combination works surprisingly well.
The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard, takes place in the Universe of Xuya, a sprawling alternate history of a world in which China arrived in North America long before Europe, causing a ripple of changes that spread into the future. But you do not have to know any of that to enjoy this story—I certainly didn’t! The setting, which Bodard says is drawn more from Vietnamese culture than Chinese, is richly described and beautifully realized. Everything you need to know to understand this story is in the text itself, though it may inspire you to seek out more of Bodard’s work in this universe. You can practically touch the rich, bustling world that exists outside the bounds of this thin volume, coloring and influencing the characters’ pasts, presents, and futures.
The characters are all-important here. The detective, Long Chau, is much as you might expect: all too aware of her own brilliance, antagonistic towards social norms, overly confident, suffering no fools, yet surprisingly quick to defend the defenseless, with a strong sense of right and wrong that does not match up with that of society. Her background is a mystery for most of the book, but her personality is quite recognizable.
The Shadow’s Child, narrator and surrogate for Dr. Watson, was my personal favorite. She is still a war veteran, still suffering the trauma of past battles, just like Doyle’s Dr. Watson, but here she is not a doctor, but someone who brews teas that help people handle the psychological stresses of deep space. She is stubborn, refusing to go back into deep space to carry passengers now that the war is over, even though it would be quite lucrative, and deals with the pity of both her fellow shipminds and the landlord who rents her a space to peddle her teas (it is worth noting that The Shadow’s Child, being a ship, and thus very large, spends most of the story interacting with people as a holographic image of herself). She is fascinated by Long Chau despite herself: first, by her unnerving ability to deduce things she cannot possible know, and later, by the mystery that Long Chau draws her into investigating. Of the two main characters, The Shadow’s Child is the one most changed at the end of the story, forced to draw on inner reserves that she did not know she possessed.
The story works well as a Holmesian homage, and part of the pleasure I derived in reading it came from looking for the parallels. However, The Tea Master and the Detective is so much more than a simple gender-swapped adaptation of the classic duo we know. The characters are unique, and the world is much more interesting to explore than Victorian London (not that I have anything against Victorian London, but it’s well-trod territory).
The Tea Master and the Detective appealed to my intellect more than my emotions. Each moment revealed new details of world and character in Bodard’s crisp prose, and the secrets about Long Chau’s past, and the mysteries the duo quickly uncover, piqued my curiosity and kept me turning the pages. This a hard book to put down, and I recommend reading it in as few sittings as possible. This is the sort of novella that is closer to a short story than a novel in its pacing. Fortunately, at less than one hundred words, it is entirely possible to read it in one lazy afternoon, or just a few evenings, or one evening of staying up far past your bedtime.
All things considered, this is a quick, fascinating read, with nuanced characters and a rich setting. And did I mention that it won the 2018 Nebula Award for Best Novella? Because it did.