Review: Red Scholar’s Wake, by Aliette de Bodard

Xich Si is a tech scavenger, working out of a not very prosperous port of the An O empire. She just wants to support herself and her daughter in relative safety and comfort. On one ofher scavenging expeditions, she is captured by pirates and expects that the best she can expect is to be sold as a bondsperson. When the avatar of the mindshp that captured her comes to her cell, she expects worse, but gets a surprise she couldn’t anticipate. Rice Fish, whose wife, Huan, the Red Scholar, was killed in the fighting, wants Xich Si’s tech skills, to help find evidence of who really killed Huan. And to protect Xich Si while she’s doing that, they need to marry. Just a business arrangement, Rice Fish assures her. Xich Si agrees because the only alternatives are worse. Soon she finds that Rice Fish is an idealist trying to salvage what she and Huan were building, and that she needs to navigate her way through pirate culture, pirate politics, an increasingly complicated relationship with Rice Fish, and negotiating with officials of the An O and Ðai Viêt empires.

Red Scholar’s Wake, by Aliette de Bodard. JABberwocky Literary Agency, ISBN 9781625676108, November 2022

Review by Lis Carey: Xich Si is a tech scavenger, living in Triệu Hoà Port, and scavenging tech to sell and support herself and her daughter, when she’s captured by pirates. Specifically, she finds herself a prisoner on the mindship Rice Fish.

Rice Fish is the Red Consort, wife of the Red Scholar, head of the Red Banner faction of pirates. Or rather, she’s the widow of Huan, the Red Scholar, who has been killed in the recent fighting. The Red Widow. 

When Rice Fish comes to Xich Si’s cell, while the drunken wake is still going on, Xixh Si fears the worst. What the mindship wants, though, is a huge shock–once the mindship verifies that Xich Si is the maker of the bots that attracted her interest, she wants to marry her. But it will be strictly a business arrangement.

Rice Fish wants Xich Si’s technical skills. She needs help finding the evidence of who really killed the Red Scholar, so she can strike back at the enemy, and protect what they’ve been building. What they’ve been building is not a marriage and a family, though they have a grown son, Hổ, the Purple Scholar–head of the Purple Banner pirate faction. Rice Fish knows who she suspects, but she doesn’t have evidence, and outside the Red Banner, she doesn’t really have allies, at least not solid allies. Not even Hổ, who resents the relationship his two mothers had, and disagrees with and resents their ideas-what they were trying to build.

What were they trying to build? A safe haven for the pirates, the Citadel, which as a structure is pretty well built. Laws guaranteeing fairness and some level of justice to everyone within the pirate community–including indentured bondspeople, which would have been Xich Si’s fate if Rice Fish hadn’t decided she could be more useful. A transition from full-on piracy to acting as escorts and protectors for merchants moving through their area. A lot of the pirates don’t like this idea; it means giving up what they enjoy most about piracy.

Xich Si finds herself in a new, confusing culture, married to someone whom she increasingly respects and finds attractive and who thinks a business arrangement is the only way a marriage can be without guaranteeing the destruction of her plans, and with Xich Si’s own daughter in Triệu Hoà Port, protected only by someone who may decide, when she realizes Xich Si isn’t coming back, may decide she’s too much trouble and should better be sold into indenture. She’s five years old, and her life would become hell.

Xich Si doesn’t know the culture or the politics of the pirates, or the politics involved in their interaction with the An O empire which is her own home, or the Ðai Viêt, and most importantly, the enemies Rice Fish doesn’t know she has. Or allies already shaken enough that they’ll fade into neutrality at best. Yet Xich Si has to navigate this treacherous territory. Both the relationship between Rice Fish and Xich Si, and the mix of politics, tech problems, and clashes between the factions Xich Si is only beginning to figure out, make fascinating stories. I love these characters, their world, and their struggles to make it better.

Highly recommended.

I bought this book.

1 thought on “Review: Red Scholar’s Wake, by Aliette de Bodard

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