The Tea Master and The Detective by Aliette de Bodard

Publisher - Jaberwocky Literary Agency

Published - Out now

Price - £3.49 kindle

Welcome to the Scattered Pearl’s Belt, a collection of ring habitats and orbitals ruled by exiled human scholars and powerful families, and held together by living mindships who carry people and freight between the stars. In this fluid society, human and mindship avatars mingle in corridors and in function rooms, and physical and virtual realities overlap, the appearance of environments easily modified and adapted to interlocutors or current mood. A transport ship discharged from military service after a traumatic injury, The Shadow’s Child now ekes out a precarious living as a brewer of mind-altering drugs for the comfort of space-travellers. Meanwhile, abrasive and eccentric scholar Long Chau wants to find a corpse for a scientific study. When Long Chau walks into her office, The Shadow’s Child expects an unpleasant but easy assignment. When corpse turns out to have been murdered, Long Chau feels compelled to investigate, dragging The Shadow’s Child with her. As they dig deep into the victim’s path, The Shadow’s Child realises that the investigation points to Long Chau’s own murky past and, ultimately, to the dark and unbearable void that lies between the stars…

Sherlock Holmes and science fiction have an interesting relationship. While a focus more on logical thinking than on technology SF has seen tributes in many worlds from holodecks in star trek to the many variations seen in short stories from Neil Gaiman all the way to Emma Newman. Aliette de Bodard now brings a refreshing far future version of the tale which is fully worth your time.

Our lead in character is The Shadow’s Child who being an injured war veteran is clearly our Watson but is unique in being actually a mindship a starship AI that can also appear as a holographic avatar within your room. Following a deep space attack, she lost her family crew and has decided to lurk on a space station making drugs/teas that can assist human space travellers overcome the weird effects of deep space travel.  She is a lost soul not sure of her purpose anymore. In sharp contrast is her client Long Chau – apparently cold, logical and with enough arrogance to make you doubt she is human. The Shadow’s Child initially think her visit is for tea, but it becomes a well-paid science trip into deep space to look at wrecks and pull in a body. Of course, this turns into a lot more and a murder most horrible has been located. The Shadow’s Child starts to suspect her detective and a web of intrigue involving humans and mindships starts to unravel.

I think like any Holmes story the chemistry between the two leads is important to capture and de Bodard brings us two unique characters. The Shadow’s Child although a mindship comes across the most human suffering from a version of PTSD that other ships worry about her progress. Kind, troubled and capable to use her AI and bots to investigate not just the murder for her new consulting detective client. Long Chau carries the trademark aloofness and arrogance of Holmes matched with a fierce diagnostic intelligence and her own almost computer like ability to absorb information, but she also brings the often-missing sense of justice and a desire to bring the victim’s killers to account no matter what. The blending of her zeal and Shadow Child’s compassion becomes a powerful force in the novella and its fascinating to watch the two learn to understand and trust each other.

The other key component in a Holmes tale is the world and mystery that comes out of it. Here Victorian London is replaced with a huge space station where groups and faction vie for power or enlightenment. The investigation takes them to a seemingly helpful Church that takes the poor and oppressed under their wing. While Conan Doyle focused on the elites generally Long Chau seems far more focused on those not able to have a voice against such powers. How this connects to the eerie time-distorting world of hyperspace is where the investigation leads and is Long Chau completely honest about where she comes from? The Scattered Pearls have been now explored in many of de Bodard’s work and there constantly seems to be so much more to find out about them.

This was a fantastic reading experience and I think any fan of Holmes stories would be well to pick it up.  It takes the core spine of the tales and adds something new and progressive into the mix.  Fascinating and I really hope we get to see the investigative pair on other cases in the future.