the Little Red Reviewer

The Tea Master and The Detective, by Aliette de Bodard

Posted on: February 21, 2018

The Tea Master and The Detective, by Aliette de Bodard

available March 31, 2018

where I got it: received ARC from the publisher (thanks Sub Press!)



Aliette deBodard’s newest novella, The Tea Master and the Detective (available March 31 from Subterranean Press)  wears the disguise of a space opera Sherlock Holmes type story, complete with an insensitive detective who is a master of deduction and the annoyed lackey who follows behind until finally seeing the light. I say wears that disguise because while this is a highly enjoyable and  tightly focused mystery, it functions better as a showcase for deBodard’s characterization and worldbuilding prowess. If you’ve not yet experienced the beauty of one of deBodard’s Xuya stories, The Tea Master and The Detective is an excellent entry point. (click here for an in depth chronology and list of Xuya stories, many of which are available to read online) If you enjoy character driven narratives, beautiful prose, and multi-sensory worldbuilding, this is the story for you.


Us reviewers, we’re always talking about worldbuilding –  which among other things is literally how an author builds a world and how successfully they transport us, the reader, to that world. How big is the city? How wide is the river? How many ships are in the harbor? How small is the escape pod? What color are the androids?  How dark is the forest?  What color is her dress?


Did you notice something about all those worldbuilding questions?


They are all visual.


Don’t get me wrong, visual worldbuilding is important! I want to know that the city is so large you can’t walk across it in a day, that the river is narrow here but wider further south closer to home but I walk a ways to cross here because I refuse to pay the bridge toll, that there aren’t many ships in the harbor because of those idiotic tariffs, that this damn escape pod is so claustrophobically small that i can barely turn around and i’m about to lose my damn mind, that the android is a dull gun-metal grey, that the forest is as dark as midnight, and that her dress was blood red.


But there is more to the world than seeing.  Smell, taste, texture, memory, if presented right, those sensory experiences will tell you more about how a character has moved through a world than anything else.  deBodard does that kind of worldbuilding exactly right.


There is this gorgeous short scene (the best always are) where two shipminds are having tea together. They have tea and snacks, and they just chat.  There is tea, of course, but also a medley of sumptuous dishes. Both shipminds know that none of this is real. There is no food on the table, the two of them are physically incapable of actually eating or drinking anything. But the concept of the food reminds them of their families. The pork is the same dish from childhood festivals, the scent of the tea is the same of family discussions and decisions generations old. All of that and more, in a few short paragraphs about a meal that neither of the participants are actually eating. A meal that doesn’t actually exist, but symbolizes everything of import, connects these two people to family members and conversations that have been dead for decades.  More worldbuilding and characterization in that small handful of paragraphs than I sometimes find in an entire novel.  I’ve read this short scene like three times now. It gets better every time, like shining light through a prism and having it come out a rainbow of the rest of the story on the other side.

While reading The Tea Master and the Detective, I completely latched on to the ways The Shadow’s Child has moved through her world.  Her heartroom, her memories of her family, the ways she blends her tea, her favorite novels, the way she treats her PTSD as a scab she can’t help but pick at.  I’ve become fascinated with AI and how the human brain works these last few years, so I’m glomming onto stories where the main character doesn’t so much smudge the boundary between human and AI, but lives in a world where there never was a boundary to begin with. They are simply themselves.  The Shadow’s Child is  herself, just like you or I are ourselves. She is a shipmind, she uses an avatar to walk around a station, and only the woefully ignorant would describe her as simply an AI.


But wait, there’s more!  The Tea Master and The Detective is more than just intimately multi-sensory worlding building, characters you’d happily read an entire novel about, and an exploration of how a shipmind copes with death, PTSD, and the unavoidably short lives of their human family members.  How deBodard crammed all of this into only 90 pages, I have no idea, she must have have jammed a TARDIS or something in there to make space for everything.


Also, I keep forgetting that the shipminds live for generations, for hundreds of years. As they age, their painted and carved bodies become archives and portrait halls of their human families. Do they see us as mayflies?  Do they learn at a young age not to get too attached to us, because we will just die and leave them?  Are young shipminds encouraged by their human families to become friends with another shipmind, so they’ll have someone in their life who is like them?


On a slightly related note,  the last Robin Hobb I read was Ship of Magic. It is a fantasy story, but the ships are alive. I didn’t continue in the series because some of the characters just pissed me off and I’m still recovering from the middle book of Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy (it’s been more than 5 years! Why are my memories of Forest Mage still traumatizing?). But anyways, ships that are alive. Ships that carry their families, that care for their families, that live longer than individual family members, ships that stand between their family and death at sea.  I wonder what the conversation would be like between a deBodard shipmind and a Hobb liveship.


4 Responses to "The Tea Master and The Detective, by Aliette de Bodard"

Sounds right up my alley, though you don’t say much about the detecting aspect. I wonder if there will be an e-edition?


there is a detective story, and it’s a good one! it involves a dead body, someone putting a lot of lives at risk, and how to figure things out about a person based on what is in their bedroom.

hmm… the Sub Press website show anything for the e-book yet, so maybe they are waiting until the print is shipping? I dunno. 😦


Thx for bringing this to our attention. I clicked over to the link and I read:

“Xuya is a recurring universe in my alternate histories: the premise is that China discovered the Americas before the West, and that this led to a global Asian domination of the globe rather than the Western one–and to a space age initially dominated by Confucian powers (basically, Chinese and Vietnamese galactic empires).”

……and I’m quite interested. Pseudo-Stand-alone shorter fiction sounds great right now!


And from what I can tell, ALL her Xuya books function as stand alones. there are some super short stories, maybe at Clarkesworld or Beneath Ceaseless Skies? give something short a try, see what you think, and if you like it, there is a ton more waiting for you.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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