ARC review: The Red Scholar’s Wake, by Aliette de Bodard

Teal banner with stylised flower decorations. On the left, the cover of The Red Scholar's Wake, showing two women holding hands at the bay window of a spaceship looking out into space. The ship is in red and purple tones, with the sky in dark blues and pale pinks. The ship interior is intricately decorated, with red fish sculptures at the top framing the window (and book title).
On the right, the blog post title: The Red Scholar's Wake, by Aliette de Bodard.

I’ve got a few reviews out about Aliette de Bodard’s work already (like Fireheart Tiger, or Seven of Infinities), so is it any surprise that I wanted to read Red Scholar’s Wake? I was very excited to get approved for the ARC. I buddy-read it with my friend Tessa and I was so glad to have someone to scream to about it. Thanks to Netgalley and Orion Publishing for giving me a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

The Plot

Xích Si: bot maker, data analyst, mother, scavenger. But those days are over now-her ship has just been captured by the Red Banner pirate fleet, famous for their double-dealing and cruelty. Xích Si expects to be tortured to death-only for the pirates’ enigmatic leader, Rice Fish, to arrive with a different and shocking proposition: an arranged marriage between Xích Si and herself.

Rice Fish: sentient ship, leader of the infamous Red Banner pirate fleet, wife of the Red Scholar. Or at least, she was the latter before her wife died under suspicious circumstances. Now isolated and alone, Rice Fish wants Xích Si’s help to find out who struck against them and why. Marrying Xích Si means Rice Fish can offer Xích Si protection, in exchange for Xích Si’s technical fluency: a business arrangement with nothing more to it.

But as the investigation goes on, Rice Fish and Xích Si find themselves falling for each other. As the interstellar war against piracy intensifies and the five fleets start fighting each other, they will have to make a stand-and to decide what kind of future they have together…

An exciting space opera and a beautiful romance, from an exceptional SF author.

The Review

I started reading de Bodard’s Xuya universe a few years back with the free short stories published online, and then with Of Wars, Memories, and Starlight, her short story collection. I’ve also read most (all?) novellas in this universe, so I felt rather ready for this book and excited to get more of the gorgeous worldbuilding that is so typical of it. That said, it’s entirely a standalone romance/adventure novel and you need no context to read it.

I got taken in by the idea of lesbian space pirates when the book was first mentioned, and I was so looking forward to it! I tend to… not really read blurbs for authors I trust, so I was surprised and intrigued to find out that one half of the main couple was a mindship. Sentient spaceships are one of my favourite tropes and de Bodard’s take on it always fascinates me (I think I can say without spoilers that they’re human-spaceship hybrids, borne from a human mother) and I loved the idea of exploring what it means for one of them to have deep feelings for someone, and how that is navigated.

The romance hit all the right notes for me from the start, with all the tropes that made me go “aaaaah” and not want to put down the book (well, phone) even though it was 3am. It’s a romance born of necessity and it really added tension to the whole situation. And what does it mean to consent when the other person has so much power over you? I liked that it didn’t shy from those difficult topics. And the trauma of past relationships, and the damage it can do to the children involved.

Speaking of children, all the kids in this book! They were adorable! And aside from providing some needed levity, I love that they’re truly individuals with their own needs and feelings and not just an afterthought.

De Bodard also continues on her trend to not really have male characters. I mean, there’s one or two, but most important players, and almost all background characters, are women. And in a genre that’s still dominated by men, it’s always refreshing.

Aside from the romance, we get a mystery/political intrigue plot that was interesting enough to keep me guessing and yet did not overshadow the romance. Another thing with the Xuya universe is that there is some kind of magic to the technology – I don’t understand it, but there’s no technobabble trying to make me understand it. It’s these characters’ reality and it just IS, and I appreciate that. On the one hand, I keep wanting more explanations and context, and on the other I’m happy to leave it as is and just go with it; it’s part of what makes the universe so vivid to me, that not everything is explained away.

I was really happy to get a novel-size story in that universe, and a full-on romance novel at that, and I would heartily recommend it whether you’re familiar with this universe or completely new to it.

This book comes out November 24th! Preorder it at your local indie bookshop or follow one of the links below:

Barnes & Noble | Bookshop UK (affiliate link) | Portal Bookshop | Kenny’s

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