Aliette de Bodard’s 2018 mystery The Tea Master and the Detective takes place in her Xuya universe.
Cashiered following a deep-space calamity, shipmind The Shadow’s Child now makes a meagre living brewing medicinal infusions. It claims that these infusions will alleviate the stresses of other-dimensional travel.
Long Chau seems to be just another human client. She is in fact something unusual.
Long Chau is a consulting detective with wide-ranging interests. She isinterested in buying drugs; she is also interested in a venture into the deep spaces of the other dimensions. She asks The Shadow’s Child to take her there and help her look for a dead body.
Despite her qualms — she lost an entire crew in the deeper spaces—Th eShadow’s Child is cajoled into accepting the commission. The foray is a success…and the start of a deeper mystery. It turns out that Long Chau didn’twant a specific corpse; she merely wanted one that had been exposed to deeper spaces. For scientific purposes. But it turns out that the corpse they find has no business being where it was found.
It’s a mystery that Long Chau is determined to solve.
Not every Xuya story is about power politics and military stratagems. Some are about people struggling to deal with personal trauma. The Xuya setting is not kind; we occasionally see people and organizations being compassionate when it suits them, but for the most part broken and damaged people are abandoned once they stop being useful. Those discarded cope as best they can, whether by working as an apothecary or a consulting detective whose past does not bear close examination … or by other means that are frequently both bold and ill-fated.
de Bodard is riffing on Sherlock Holmes in this story. There’s a brilliant but addicted detective driven to solve puzzles to keep herself occupied and a companion, a damaged veteran companion, who is a sidekick and sounding board1. But this story is more than a one-for-one mapping of Victorian detection into a space opera setting. It is not quite teacher-turned-detective Long Chau and warship-turned-tea-master as Holmes and Watson IN SPAAACE. It’smore fun than that.
Author de Bodard is no stranger to spec-fic mystery, as her Obsidian and Blood series demonstrates. This concerns me; I fear that she could at any moment defect to the popular, lucrative mystery genre (where she would doubtless be successful). Genre fans! Stand up for your genre! Buy up every available copy of this book before the mystery fans discover de Bodard.
1: With all due respect to actor Nigel Bruce, if all Holmes wanted was someone to whom he could explain, he could have acquired a cat or (if he insisted his companion actually listen to him) a dog. [Editor’s note: but the function of Watson is to assure Holmes that he is brilliant; a dog cannot do that. All a dog can do is love you.]