My experience with NK Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? mirrored my experience with Jemisin’s writing as a whole, but definitely left me feeling keener to read more of her work. There were some stories here that did not work for me. Often, these were early tries at novels of hers that I have read and didn’t quite click with (‘Stone Hunger’/The Fifth Season) or novels of hers that I haven’t read and am now even more sure I won’t click with (‘The City Born Great’/The City We Became). A couple were as heavy-handed as her novella Emergency Skin – ‘The Ones Who Stay And Fight’, ‘Red Dirt Witch’; a couple others just felt silly and under-developed – ‘The Trojan Girl’, ‘Sinners, Saints, Dragons and Haints…’, ‘On The Banks of the River Lex’, ‘Henosis’.
Having said all that, though, there are twenty-two stories in this book and pretty much all the others were great. This is especially impressive because they span such a range of worlds and styles. A cook encounters a mysterious man who passes her magical recipes (‘L’Alchimista’); two women ally in an alternative version of early nineteenth-century New Orleans (‘The Effluent Engine’); a girl discovers why all the school valedictorians in her firewalled world are taken away from their community (‘Valedictorian’). Easily my favourite stories were the science fiction shorts, which feel like novels-in-a-bottle; I loved the chilling ‘The Brides of Heaven’, where an all-woman community struggles in a space colony after all the men die in a life-support unit malfunction, and ‘The Evaluators’, a first-contact story that reminded me of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.
While I’ve only read one full-length novel by Jemisin, I definitely feel that she’s at her strongest when she’s creating interesting worlds, and at her weakest when she starts giving her stories simple messages. At her best, she somehow manages to tie together huge narratives in the space of thirty pages or so, never trailing off like I’ve seen so many short story writers do. I’m still not sure what I’ll pick up from her next – it’s a shame that all her longer works seem to be fantasy rather than science fiction, which works less well for me – but I’m open to recommendations.
I loved the cover and the premise and indeed, the title of Aliette de Bodard’s The Red Scholar’s Wake. Sadly, I did not love this book. The inciting incident struck me as very similar to that of Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit, which I also read this month. When Xích Si is captured by the Red Banner pirate fleet, she’s shocked when its leader, the sentient ship Rice Fish, proposes an offer of marriage; her previous wife, the Red Scholar, died in mysterious circumstances, and Rice Fish wants to draw on Xích Si’s technical expertise to work out what really happened. Xích Si and Rice Fish are divided by their views of the world: while Xích Si despises piracy and valorises her scavenger lifestyle, deploring the indentures used by the pirate alliance, Rice Fish argues that the haven she has built using the Red Banner offers a better way of living. Despite these differences, Xích Si and Rice Fish begin to fall for each other – but then an escalation of the political struggle within the pirate fleet threatens to tear them apart.
In my review of Winter’s Orbit, I suggested that it was really ‘romance with a side of science fiction’ and I think The Red Scholar’s Wake falls into that category as well, despite having more superficial SF trappings. de Bodard makes much of the sentient ships, the avatars that both ships and humans project and the bots they then use to interact with their environment, but unlike Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice trilogy, this book has nothing interesting to say about sentience, and indeed treats its ship and human characters exactly the same way. Similarly, there’s a gloss of Vietnamese culture that informs the world of this novel, but doesn’t ultimately make it any different from a standard SF setting. The political subplot is incredibly simplistic and predictable, making Winter’s Orbit look Machiavellian.
The problem is, then, that if The Red Scholar’s Wake is really a romance, it needs to be… romantic. And for me, the pairing didn’t work at all. Neither Xích Si nor Rice Fish are given much of a character past the different ethical stances that I described above. Because they have no personalities, there is nothing to draw them together, and yet they fall very quickly for each other. There also seems to be no consideration of the fact that ONE OF THEM IS A SHIP. I imagine de Bodard was trying to show that this kind of pairing is very normal in this world, but she needed to do more work to sell this to the reader (I found the ‘sex’ scene in the middle of the novel INCREDIBLY creepy). Reading this book actually made me reflect on why Winter’s Orbit worked so well, and why it might be a bit unfair to describe it as ‘romance with a side of science fiction’. While I was totally won over by the central pairing in that novel, the science fiction setting wasn’t merely a backdrop; Maxwell used some of the technologies she introduced to explore the trauma of an abusive relationship and how we can mend ourselves. In contrast, The Red Scholar’s Wake was definitely romance plus a bit of science fiction; the two aspects of the novel never speak to each other, and at some points (the aforementioned sex scene!!), are directly in conflict.
Note: After writing this, I found this excellent Goodreads review which picks up on the problematic representation of aromantic and asexual people in this book. This perfectly explains the unease I had around the way that Rice Fish’s relationship with her first wife was depicted, and why I didn’t find her trauma convincing.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.