2020’s Seven of Infinities is a short (138 pages) science fiction novel set in Alliette de Bodard’s Xuya universe.
Scholar Vân ekes out a meagre living as a tutor. She is therefore alarmed to learn from her acquaintance, the shipmind Sunless Woods, that the poetry club to which both scholar and AI belong wants to eject Vân for being too commonplace. This could trigger an economic catastrophe for Vân, as her clients might take ejection as a signal to dump Vân and hire someone else. Nevertheless, Vân cannot fight, because to fight would attract scrutiny she cannot afford.
A suspicious death comes almost as a welcome distraction.
The dead woman found in quarters belonging to Vân’s student Uyên has a face unfamiliar to both Uyên and Vân. The cause of death is likewise unknown. What is clear to Vân is that the militia will want an explanation for the death and that the militia being ruthless and inflexible, their quest for a satisfactory result could be catastrophic for Vân. Vân has secrets she cannot afford to have exposed. She has to point the militia’s suspicions in another direction. That would be easier if she or her shipmind friend had any clue as to who killed the woman. Any clue at all.
Many might pack their bags and run at this point. Sunless Woods and Vân take an entirely different course: they discover who the dead woman was, how she died, why she died, and solve the mystery themselves.
The answers are alarming: the dead woman was an exile. Worse, she was an exile known to Vân, someone Vân did not recognize because the dead woman was wearing a new face. The woman died because she had illegally returned from exile; the safeguards implanted to ensure her exile had killed her quite painfully. What could have been so important as to lure a condemned criminal back to almost certain death?
The answer? Unparalleled treasure! Something irresistible to a career criminal like Sunless Woods. But what could possibly go wrong when one is searching for a treasure that had already claimed lives?
What I didn’t mention in the previous synopsis: the growing romance between the determinedly conventional Vân and the quite unconventional spaceship. Sunless Woods could have let Vân be blindsided by the poetry club … but didn’t for some reason. We learn that the reason is love, sweet love. But don’t worry, romance-averse readers! There’s enough blood to fill a kitchen sink as well.
The beginning of the short novel leads one to expect a murder mystery. It is not, really. The mysterious death is not murder (unless for some reason heavy-handed punishment by the state is murder) and the murder that eventually turns up isn’t all that mysterious. This is a crime story, of the “treasure to be won if one can overcome a few small obstacles” genre.
Seven is short and well crafted. The setting is a brutally authoritarian, rigidly hierarchal state, which would seem to guarantee a dystopian tale. Yet the author regales us with a story with upbeat moments. Personal moments, but one takes pleasant outcomes where one can.