Aliette de Bodard’s 2022 The Red Scholar’s Wake is a space opera set in de Bodard’s Xuya Universe.
Captured by Red Banner space pirates, scavenger Xích Si is painfully aware of a number of possible fates. She will probably have to choose between immediate death and involuntary indenture to the pirate fleet. Should she somehow survive capture without joining the fleet, she will forever be an outcast; her native An O Empire will assume that she bought her life with signing up as a pirate and will execute her for crimes against the state1. If Xích Si were to contact her relatives, they could be arrested and executed for abetting piracy.
To Xích Si’s astonishment, the recently widowed mindship Rice Fish comes to Xích Si with a proposition. Or rather, a proposal.
Piracy is a dangerous occupation. A violent death is to be expected. Traditionally such deaths are the fault of the enemy. But Rice Fish is convinced that someone in the pirate gang caused the death of her mate, Red Scholar, by supplying information to imperial censor Trúc. Furthermore, Rice Fish is certain that the person responsible was Red Scholar’s rival in the pirate council, Kim Thông. What Rice Fish lacks is proof, which is where Xích Si comes in.
Xích Si has the technical expertise to conduct espionage for Rice Fish. In return for these services, Rice Fish offers marriage, which while entirely loveless, will provide Xích Si with protection from the rest pf the pirates. Preferring a sham marriage to whatever horrors await the indentured, Xích Si accepts. Of course, there is no chance at all that a simple business arrangement could develop into something more.
The pirate fleet’s situation seems clear enough. Trained by the Đại Việt Empire, the pirates prey on the An O Empire’s merchant fleets. In order to betray Huân to Censor Trúc, Kim Thông has to have been communicating with the censor. Why? Was Kim Thông seeking power on the pirate council by removing a rival? Or is the pirate planning to buy personal safety by betraying all the other pirates?
Before Xích Si can uncover the truth, another matter distracts her. Before her ill-fated trip she left her six-year-old daughter Khanh in the care of Aunt Vy. Aunt Vy appears to have tired of the expense and has put the child up for sale. Fearing for her child, Xích Si sneaks back to her old home.
The plan is to grab Khanh and leave. Finding herself face to face with Censor Trúc is an unexpected surprise.
There are two covers for this novel, pictured below
I selected the cover my e‑arc came with. Not sure which one I prefer.
This novel features an unusual character type: a bureaucrat capable of keeping the intention of regulations in mind, rather than relentlessly enforcing rules without any consideration of consequences.
In an astonishing twist, de Bodard’s pirates aren’t jolly scamps who while away the time singing happy songs. They make their living forcing merchants to pay protection money and attacking those who don’t pay dues. They aren’t even honest thieves: if the opportunity presents itself, they’ll attack ships that have paid protection money Why, it’s almost as though robbery were inherently predatory2.
The historical model here is that of the South Sea pirates in the time of Ching Shih. An O is analogous to China, while Đại Việt is analogous to Vietnam. However, events in the book do not map one to one onto history.
It may astonish readers to learn that having made lengthy protestations to the effect that the marriage is merely an arrangement, that no personal affection will be involved … somehow personal affection does become involved3. I for one completely failed to foresee such a development in this, a novel whose subtitle is “A Xuya Universe romance.”
This book isn’t just about political maneuvering and unexpected romance between broken people — although if you like that sort of thing, you will enjoy Red Scholar. It would be a shame to have heavily armed ships without having them clash with something; de Bodard does not pass up that opportunity. Space opera!
1: Condemned for no fault of one’s own; this is the story of the Dazexiang uprising. To his credit, Censor Trúc can see the inherent problem in a legal system that forces innocent people to choose between death and piracy.
2: de Bodard also presents a rather unattractive portrait of legalistic, civil-liberty-free empires.
3: The protagonists benefit from what is functionally therapy, something that many SF characters should consider.