The Red Scholar’s Wake – Aliette de Bodard

“‘The Red Scholar is dead.’

Xích Si’s life as she’s known it has come to an end. Captured by pirates, even if the impossible happened and they let her go, she’d be arrested as soon as she got home, tainted by association and ever suspect. Her future can only hold indentured servitude, or death. But then she gets another offer: a marriage of convenience to Rice Fish, the sentient ship that leads the Red Banner faction.

It’s not much of a choice, but Xich Si will need to do a lot of mental readjustments to live a life as a pirate consort. She hates the death and destruction that follows the outlaws. She hates the Empire and bureaucrats of her old life, too, petty and corrupt and cruel, all of them. To her surprise, though, what she doesn’t hate is Rice Fish, her new wife.

And so begins a tale of love and loss and overcoming trauma, for Xich Si and Rice Fish both. The latter is still grieving the Red Scholar, and the book’s title is cleverly multi-faceted: we have the vigil-type wake following a death, of course, but you can also ‘follow in someone’s wake’, as in the disturbance in the water’s surface behind a ship. Xich Si is definitely following in the turbulence left by the Red Scholar!

All of these very personal themes are layered over a relatively simple, but tense, story line. As well as the threat from the Empire, Rice Fish suspects her late wife’s death was orchestrated by the head of the Green Banner – and she wants Xich Si to find the evidence she needs to make the accusation public. If she fails, the Green Banner might destroy every principle the pirate community upholds, taking them all into utter carnage.

The Red Scholar’s Wake is set in the author’s Xuya universe, without being part of the main series. While I haven’t managed to read that yet, I’m even keener now to explore more of the world the author has built. Full of Chinese and Vietnamese inspiration, I’m in love with the visuals painted in words, and there’s a fascinating array of technology I need to read more about, not least the sentient ships themselves.

If I had any difficulty with this book, it might have been the ship characters, or at least Rice Fish. Perhaps if I’d read more of the series beforehand I would have understood better, but as it was I struggled a little with how emotional and, well, human, Rice Fish is. That’s wholly on me, that expectation for a ship to be more machine-like, more logical and cold, and I supposed I’m glad enough to have my expectations challenged.

I also slightly wonder at the speed of the (sapphic, as every bit of marketing feels obliged to mention) romance in the book – or, would a ‘slow burn’ approach have just felt cliched? It does seem a little too instant an attraction, but then, the characters start their relationship by getting married, so…! 😉

Overall, this was a great slice of sci-fi, and despite possibly sounding like a grumble above, it was wonderfully different and imaginative. I wanted more – the story is perhaps a little novella-proportioned – but hey, I have the rest of the Xuya books to help with that!

red scholar's wake coverNetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 22 chapters
First published: 24th November 2022
Series: A Xuya Universe Romance
Read from 14th-21st November 2022

My rating: 8/10

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