Tea Master and the Detective

Tea Master and the Detective

Dust jacket illustration by Maurizio Manzieri

Subterranean Press is thrilled to announce our first title from Nebula Award-winning Aliette de Bodard.
De Bodard brings us a new novella set in the award-winning, critically-acclaimed Xuya universe!
Welcome to the Scattered Pearls Belt, a collection of ring habitats and orbitals ruled by exiled human scholars and powerful families, and held together by living mindships who carry people and freight between the stars. In this fluid society, human and mindship avatars mingle in corridors and in function rooms, and physical and virtual realities overlap, the appearance of environments easily modified and adapted to interlocutors or current mood.
A transport ship discharged from military service after a traumatic injury, The Shadow's Child now ekes out a precarious living as a brewer of mind-altering drugs for the comfort of space-travellers. Meanwhile, abrasive and eccentric scholar Long Chau wants to find a corpse for a scientific study. When Long Chau walks into her office, The Shadow's Child expects an unpleasant but easy assignment. When the corpse turns out to have been murdered, Long Chau feels compelled to investigate, dragging The  Shadow's Child with her. 
As they dig deep into the victim's past, The Shadow's Child realises that the investigation points to Long Chau's own murky past--and, ultimately, to the dark and unbearable void that lies between the stars...
Limited: 1000 signed numbered hardcover copies

From The New York Times:

“This isn’t a tidy transposition of Holmes and Watson into far-future space, for all that the elements of homage (Long Chau is an abrasive self-medicating ‘consulting detective’) shine through. The Shadow’s Child is a fully realized character in her own right, and the dislike she feels for Long Chau is sustained and justified. Instead it’s a window onto a beautifully developed world that widens the meaning of space opera, one that centers on Chinese and Vietnamese cultures and customs instead of Western military conventions, and is all the more welcome for it.

From Library Journal (Starred Review)

“This slim volume packs a visceral punch. Absorbing prose pulls readers into the dark, frigid space between stars, where ships can fail, physically and emotionally, as easily as people... Set in de Bodard’s ‘Xuya’ universe (The Waiting Stars), this novella offers sf fans an imaginative read.”

From Publishers Weekly:

“…De Bodard constructs a convincingly gritty setting and a pair of unique characters with provocative histories and compelling motivations. The story works as well as both science fiction and murder mystery, exploring a future where pride, guilt, and mercy are not solely the province of humans.”

From Kirkus:

“This futuristic Holmes and Watson story is as compelling as the finely detailed universe in which it unfolds, but the novella's real triumph is that it makes the reader crave more even before setting the stage for further mysteries.”

From The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction:

“The mystery, the world, and the characters are a perfect blend, and I absolutely want more of these two.”

From The Book Smugglers:

The Tea Master and the Detective is the Sherlock Holmes retelling I always wanted and now I have it. And I want so much more of it.”

From Tor.com: 

“This is a measured, almost stately story, right up until a conclusion that explodes in fast-paced tension. It preserves the empathy and the intensity of the original Sherlockian stories, while being told in de Bodard’s sharp prose and modern style. The worldbuilding—this novella is set in de Bodard’s Xuya continuity, like On A Red Station, Drifting and The Citadel of Weeping Pearls—sparkles. The characters have presence: they’re individual and compelling. And it ends it a way that recalls the original Holmes and Watson, while being perfectly appropriate to itself.”

From Locus (Gary K. Wolfe):

“As a classical blend of far-future SF and traditional murder mystery, The Tea Master and the Detective should satisfy readers unfamiliar with the Xuya universe, but at the same time it’s an intriguing introduction to that universe, much of which seems to lie just outside the borders of this entertaining tale.”

From Locus (Liz Bourke):

“It becomes clear early on that The Tea Master and the Detective is strongly influenced by, if not directly based upon, the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s measured, almost stately, up until the conclusion, where the tension explodes into high gear. It preserves the empathy and the intensity of the original Sherlockian stories, while being told in de Bodard’s cut-glass prose and inimitable modern style. This is a really satisfying story, deeply invested in choosing to do the right thing – and in the importance of kindness. I strongly recommend it.”

From SFRevu:

“Aliette de Bodard’s new novella in her Xuya universe is a terrific piece of writing, taking the sentient community of ships from Ian Bank’s Culture series, the glittering belt of space habitats from Alistair Reynolds’ Prefect novels, and adding in a compelling pair as the title characters.”

From Mary Robinette Kowal:

"The Tea Master is an astonishing Holmesian mystery, in which Holmes is a woman and Watson is a spaceship. It is everything I wanted it to be. Tea, space, and mysteries within mysteries."

From Fran Wilde, Andre Norton Award-winning, Nebula- and Hugo-nominated author of The Bone Universe series and The Jewel & Her Lapidary:

“In Aliette de Bodard's excellent, far-seeing The Tea Master and The Detective, an unlikely pair comes together to solve a mystery in the void and to face their pasts. This philosophical thriller is beautifully steeped in de Bodard's Xuya universe. For readers who are familiar with her mindships, this novella will be a welcome addition. For readers who may be new to Xuya, The Tea Master is an excellent entry point. The pairing of brilliant-but-hobbled detective Long Chau with the perceptive-but-wounded mindship The Shadow's Child is one of those matches that creates enough friction on the page to make sparks. Set against a background of dramatic family politics, teas, and high-tech bots, The Tea Master and The Detective is a distinct pleasure for discerning readers.”

From Jonathan L. Howard, Author of Johannes Cabal the Necromancer and Carter & Locecraft:

"It’s difficult to know where to start with the reasons to read The Tea Master and the Detective, there is such an embarrassment of riches. The world, the situation, the delicious idea of a ship playing a particularly intelligent and suspicious Watson to a very secretive female Holmes, the prose that glitters with imagery without once becoming overbearing. Briefly, it’s de Bodard firing on all cylinders, and that should be enough for anyone.”

From The Romance Reviews:

“The Tea Master and the Detective is a strangely compelling tale.”


With the recent announcement of The Tea Master and the Detective, our first book with one of our current favorite writers Aliette de Bodard, we thought we’d bring you an exclusive interview. She has won two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award, three BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) Awards, and been a finalist for the Hugo, Sturgeon, and Tiptree Awards. Our new novella is part of her ongoing Xuya universe of stories. You can find more about the author at her website. Without further ado, more from Aliette 

Gwenda Bond: Tell us a little about the Xuya universe—do people new to it need to know anything specific going into this story?

Aliette de Bodard: You need no knowledge at all of the Xuya universe to go into this story. It's completely standalone, and everything that's needed is in the book. That said, if you're curious about the series it's part of: Xuya is an alternate history where Asian cultures dominate space. The stories are mostly set in a galactic empire, the Dai Viet, which is based on Vietnamese culture. In this universe, engineers have created Minds, artificial intelligences grown specifically to take control of space stations, or of ships that jump between planets for fast travel. Minds are incubated in human volunteers, which means that they become family; and since they're longer lived than humans and this is a culture that values ancestors and older folks, minds become the cornerstones and living memories of families. The story is set in the Scattered Pearls belt, which is an area on the border of the empire which has developed its own social norms and customs, where virtual and physical realities effortlessly merge: you'll have avatars of mindships talking with humans and renting space for their own business ventures, rooms where the entire decoration changes depending on who's looking at it and what access privileges they have, etc.

GB: Where did the concept for this novella come from?

AdB: I was bored, mostly! I'm very dangerous when that happens. I was at loose ends after finishing a couple projects, and I thought it would be fun to retell the Sherlock Holmes, which are my favourite books—except in space. I sat down and thought about everything that made the Holmes story for me: Holmes is eccentric and somewhat outside the social hierarchy of Victorian times, and he's contrasted with Watson, who's a war veteran and brings the social and human intelligence that Holmes sometimes lacked. I thought it would make sense to have Holmes become an eccentric scholar (a perennial figure in Vietnamese narratives), someone who'd failed to become an official. And given that this was a universe where you could have living warships, it also made sense to have Watson not actually be human, but instead a ship who'd been a troop transport during a civil war, was discharged but still nurses traumatic injuries. There's a trope where robots or AIs don't really understand human emotions and have to struggle to make sense of them: I wanted to reverse that as well. The Shadow's Child isn't human, but she grew up in a human family, and she's way more fluent with emotions and placating people than Long Chau, the Holmes analogue, who has a tendency to ride roughshod over everyone in her quest to understand the truth.

GB: What was the most challenging or fun thing about writing it?

AdB: I had a lot of fun with putting classic Holmes nods all over the novella. The premise of it is that Long Chau needs a corpse to write a memoir on the decomposition of corpses in deep spaces (the Xuya equivalent of hyperspace), and of course that's a reference to A Study in Scarlet, where Holmes uses the hospital's morgue to set up his own experiments on how corpses bruises. I also put in a lot of dialogue that was inspired by the Conan Doyle stories: I'm not a fan of "elementary, my dear Watson" (which isn't in the books anyway!) but there's quite a few priceless lines I was able to put in the novella. And the dialogue between Long Chau and The Shadow's Child was hilarious to come up with.

GB: What are you working on now?

AdB: I'm researching book 3 in the Dominion of the Fallen series: it's still set in a ruined Gothic Paris following a devastating war, and it's going to focus on the relations between the dragon kingdom that's below the Seine and the Houses of magicians that surround it, and how the balance of power has changed following the ending of the previous book, The House of Binding Thorns. Beyond that, I'm planning a novel-length space opera set in the Xuya universe.




The new client sat in the chair reserved for customers, levelly gazing at The Shadow’s Child—hands apart, legs crossed under the jade-green fabric of her tunic. The tunic itself had been high-quality once, displaying elegant, coordinated patterns, but it was patched, and the patterns were five years old at least, the stuff that got laughed at even in a provincial backwater such as the Scattered Pearls belt. Her skin was dark, her nose aquiline. When she spoke, her accent was flawlessly Inner Habitats. “My name is Long Chau. You have a good reputation as a brewer of serenity. I want to use your services.”

The Shadow’s Child stifled a bitter laugh. Whatever her reputation was, it hadn’t translated into customers fighting to see her. “Go ahead.”

That gaze again from Long Chau. The Shadow’s Child was used to respect or fear; to downcast eyes; to awkwardness, even, with people who weren’t used to dealing with a shipmind, especially one that wasn’t involved in passenger service.

The Shadow’s Child’s body—the metal hull that encased her heartroom and her core—was far away from the office compartment they were both in. The avatar she projected into the habitat wasn’t much different from it: a large, sweeping mass of metal and optics that took up most of the office, shifting between different angles on the hull and ports, giving people a glimpse of what she was really like—vast enough to transport merchant crews and supplies, the whole of her hanging in the cool vacuum of space outside the orbitals of the Scattered Pearls belt, with bots crowding her hulls and sensors constantly bombarded by particles. She could have made herself small and unthreatening. She could have hovered over people’s shoulders like a pet or a children’s toy, as was the fashion amongst the older shipminds. But she’d lived through a war, an uprising and a famine, and she was done with diminishing herself to spare the feelings of others.

Long Chau said, “I’m going into deep spaces to recover something. I need you to make a blend that keeps me functional.”

Now that was surprising. “Most of my customers prefer oblivion when they travel between the stars,” The Shadow’s Child said.

A snort from Long Chau. “I’m not a drugged fool.”

Or a fool at all. The name she’d given, Long Chau, was an improbable confection of syllables, a style name, except as style names went it was utterly unsubtle.Dragon Pearl. “But you’re drugged, aren’t you?” The Shadow’s Child asked. She kept her voice gentle, at that tricky balance point where customers had trust, but no fear.

An expansive shrug from Long Chau. “Of course I’m drugged.” She didn’t offer further explanation, but The Shadow’s Child saw the way she held herself. She was languid and cool, seemingly in utter control, but that particular stillness was that of a spring wound so tight it’d snap.

“May I?” The Shadow’s Child asked, drifting closer and calling up the bots. She wasn’t physically there, but physical presence was mostly overrated: the bots moved as easily as the ones onboard her real body.

Long Chau didn’t even flinch as they climbed up her face. Two of them settled at the corner of her eyes, two at the edge of her lips, and a host clung to the thick mane of her hair. Most people, for all their familiarity with bots, would have recoiled.

A human heartbeat, two: data flowed back to The Shadow’s Child, thick and fast. She sorted it out easily, plotting graphs and discarding the errant measurements in less than the time it took the bots to drop down from Long Chau’s head.

She gazed, for a moment, at the thick, knot of electrical impulses in Long Chau’s brain, a frenzied and complex dance of neurons activation. For all her computational power, she couldn’t hope to hold it all in her thoughts, or even analyse it all, but she’d seen enough patterns to be able to recognise its base parameters.

Long Chau was drugged to the gills, and more: her triggers were all out of balance, too slow at low stimuli and completely wild past a certain threshold. The Shadow’s Child accessed Long Chau’s public records, again. She finally asked a question she usually avoided. “The drugs—did your doctor prescribe these to you?”

Long Chau smiled. “Of course not. You don’t need a doctor, these days.”

“For some things, maybe you should.” The Shadow’s Child said, more sharply than she intended to.

“You’re not one.”

“No,” The Shadow’s Child said. “And perhaps not the person who can help you.”

“Who said I wanted to be helped?” Long Chau shifted, smiling widely—distantly, serenely amused. “I’m happy with what I’ve achieved.”

“Except that you came to see me.”

“Ah. Yes.” She shook her head with that same odd languidness. “I do have…an annoying side effect. I’m more focused and faster, but only in a narrow range. Deep spaces are well outside that range.”

The Shadow’s Child had never dealt very well with dancing around the truth. “What are you talking about? Anxiety? Traumatic reaction?”

“Fuzziness,” Long Chau said. “I can’t think in deep spaces.”

It wasn’t unusual. Time and space got weird, especially deeper in. It took effort to remain functional. Some people could, some people couldn’t. The Shadow’s Child had had one lieutenant who spent every dive into deep spaces curled up on the bed, whimpering—it had been a hundred years ago, before the brews got developed, before brewers of serenity started doing brisk business on space stations and orbitals, selling teas and brews that made it easier for humans to bear the unknowable space shipminds used to travel faster than light.

“You could stop taking the drugs. It would probably help,” The Shadow’s Child said.

“I could.” Long Chau’s tone made it clear that she wouldn’t even consider it. The Shadow’s Child thought, for a while, reviewing evidence as she did. Long Chau was entirely right. She was no doctor; merely a small-rank brewer of serenity struggling to make ends meet. And she just couldn’t afford to ignore a customer.

“I could make a blend that would suit you,” The Shadow’s Child said.

Long Chau smiled. “Good. Go on.”

Deep spaces. She hadn’t returned to them since the Ten Thousand Flag uprising—since her entire crew died and left her stranded. The Shadow’s Child hesitated again—a moment only—and said, “I don’t want to be responsible for accidents. With all that you have in your body, I’d want to monitor you quite closely after you drink the blend.”

“I’ll have your bots.”

“Bots won’t be able to react fast enough, with the time differentials. I want to be with you in deep spaces. And it won’t come cheap.”

Long Chau was silent, for a while, staring at her. At length, she stretched, like a sated cat. “I see.” She smiled. “I hadn’t thought you’d want to return to deep spaces, even for a price. Not after what happened to you there.”

It was like a gut punch. For a brief, startling moment The Shadow’s Child was hanging, not in a comforting void, but somewhere else, where the stars kept shifting and contorting. The dead bodies of her crew littered her corridors, and the temperature was all wrong, everything pressing and grinding against her hull, a sound like a keening lament, metal pushed past endurance and sensors going dark one after the other, a scream in her ears that was hers, that had always been hers…

“How—” The Shadow’s Child shifted, showing her full size, a desperate attempt to make Long Chau back away. But Long Chau sat in the chair with a mocking, distant smile, and didn’t move. “It’s not public, or even easily accessible. You can’t possibly have found—”

Long Chau shook her head. Her lips, parted, were as thin as a knife. “It is my business to work out things that other people don’t pick up on. As I said—I’m more focused. You hesitated before saying yes.”

“Because you’re a difficult customer.”

“It could have been that. But you kept hesitating afterwards. If you’d simply decided to accommodate a difficult customer, the moment of decision would have been the only time you slowed down. There was something else about this bothering you.”

“It was a fraction of one of your heartbeats. Humans don’t pick up on this.”

“They don’t.” Nothing ventured, again; no hint that she found the silence awkward or unpleasant.

The Shadow’s Child hesitated—again for a bare moment, because what her customers did with her blends was none of her business. But she’d just committed to being in deep spaces again, and that was beyond her short limit of unpleasant surprises for the day. “You haven’t told me what you need to find in deep spaces.”

Again, that lazy, unsettling smile. “A corpse.”

Then again, perhaps she was wrong about the unpleasant surprises.

Aliette de Bodard
96 pages
United States
Subterranean Press
Out of Print