Aliette de Bodard’s 2023 A Fire Born of Exile is a stand-alone SF story of revenge and romance that takes place in her Xuya Universe setting.
Half a generation earlier, the Ten Thousand Flags Uprising was suppressed through a combination of miliary and judicial force. Naïve scholars like Dã Lan discovered that unwary words and misplaced trust could lead to the nearest airlock and sudden death. As tragic as the results were for the guilty and innocent alike, Prefect Tinh Đức flourished, building status on the skulls of those who passed through her court. Only General Tuyết rivals the prefect for power in the belt. Currently, the balance of power is tilting from military to civil.
Newcomer Quỳnh is a wealthy but seemingly unremarkable social climber, potentially useful but of no particular significance. Quỳnh is a reinvented Dã Lan, back to exact revenge on the two women — the general and the prefect — who cost the scholar so much.
Gaining an in with the prefect’s household is easy: Tinh Đức’s daughter Minh ventures out in an inadequate disguise and is immediately kidnapped by bandits. Quỳnh fortuitously happens to be on hand and easily slaughters the bandits. Now she is firmly established as a fortune seeker who did the prefect an enormous favor.
A side trip to visit the grave of her late mentor Thiên Hạnh’ provides an unexpected side-quest. Quỳnh encounters Thiên Hoà paying respects to her late relative, murdered during the uprising. As it happens, Hoà has problems of her own — her sister Thiên Dung was hired to help repair the mindship Flowers at the Gates of the Lords, and is now too ill to finish the job. Hoà is on her way to take her sister’s place, but lacks the necessary technical skills. Those very skills facilitated Quỳnh’s survival. She is more than willing to help the relative of her old teacher.
As it happens, Flowers is Minh’s great-aunt, legally the head of the family. Badly injured years ago, the mindship is seemingly comatose, which leaves effective control of the clan in the prefect’s hands. Therefore, helping Hoà restore Flowers wouldn’t just help a young woman with whom Quỳnh is swiftly smitten. It would also inconvenience the prefect.
The early stages of Quỳnh’s schemes go according to plan, greatly facilitated by the fact that her enemies are corrupt and careless. The general, for example, is the sort of person who would leave a room full of her lover’s long-dead murder victims where any well-informed person could arrange its discovery.
The latter stages of Quỳnh’s schemes don’t go as well. Someone is unhappy with the plan to revive Flowers … unhappy enough to poison Thiên Dung, then her sister Hoà. Quỳnh had planned to die as part of her revenge and she will cheerfully sacrifice Minh as a necessary cost. However, sacrificing Hoà is another matter. Will Quỳnh be forced to choose between vengeance or love?
I’d like to underline that whole “stand-alone” aspect. For the most part readers new to de Bodard and interested in her SF can start with any volume.
The book’s inspirations include The Count of Monte Cristo. However, the mapping is not one-to-one. There’s no analog to the count’s lost but living Mercédès Mondego, for example. There is also a shocking absence of telegraph-related subplots. De Bodard, presumably not being paid by the line, eschews endless digressions. There is a wealth of unforeseen complications, but the narrative is linear compared to that written by a 19th century French author determined to maximize his income.
As one would expect from previous entries in the series, the legal system in place is draconian, values the obligations of the weak to the powerful to the detriment of the weak, and offers few means of recourse1. The general has pursued the opportunities for corruption that his position offers, while the prefect prefers to shore up her power with a pose of being inflexible, doctrinaire, but just. Or if unjust, so effective at obtaining the death penalty that no innocent victim can complain. The downside of the system is that should a reversal of fortune arrive, it will be swift and inexorable. Presumably the author has specific models in mind. In any case, this is yet another SFnal autocracy. Not one that recommends itself as an example to emulate.
As to the plot … poor Quỳnh’s meticulous plans are sabotaged by an unexpected, irresistible attraction. Death-seeking vengeance is a lot easier to carry out when one doesn’t care about collateral damage.
As one expects from this author, the narrative is skillfully told. Readers who enjoyed the other Xuya works should enjoy this one as well.
A Fire Born of Exile is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble) and here (Kobo). I did not find A Fire Born of Exile at Chapters-Indigo, even though the Kobo edition should have turned up.
1: In theory, promotion is merit-based. In practice, connections matter more than competence. The impression one gets is that the empire is in a race to see whether internal divisions escalate to the point of nation-shattering civil war or whether an external enemy can overwhelm the well-connected time servers on whom national defense depends.