Aliette de Bodard is currently Hot Property, I daresay. She has previously won BSFA and Nebula awards, and has just won another two BSFAs as announced at Mancunicon (the UK National SF Convention this year) - a feat unheard of for quite some time. She is also nominated for this year's Hugo awards, in several categories (the shortlists are not released yet as I'm writing this), but I was wondering how her novella The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, published in the October/November issue of Asimov's and thus eligible for the 2016 Awards, would hold up in comparison to her other work; but especially in comparison to its (distant) prequel On a Red Station, Drifting, a Hugo and Nebula finalist which I very much appreciated.
Well, let me start by saying that the two stories are rather different, on a number of levels. Even taking into account that Aliette does not really see these as direct sequels, and that they are only loosely linked by being set in the same universe (Xuya, in the future strand), it feels like I'm not really comparing apples with apples here.
The Citadel of Weeping Pearls is centred on the Xuya Imperial court, and the Empress Mi Hiep. Mi Hiep quarreled with her daughter, the Bright Princess Ngoc Minh, 30 years ago. Ngoc Minh removed herself and her followers from the court, and founded the Citadel of Weeping Pearls to continue her quest of investigating teachings outside the court prescribed ones, and develop the teleportation, telekinetic etc abilities that were her focus of learning. When her mother felt threatened by the martial applications of these new developments, and sent her fleet do destroy he daughter and her creation the whole Citadel disappeared, and was never heard of again. But now Bach Cuc, the court's Grand Master of Design Harmony and key researcher in the effort to try and track down the Citadel has disappeared, and the Empress sends her former lover, the General Suu Nuoc, and the mindship The Turtle's Golden Claw (who is her own granddaughter) to solve the mystery and track him down, as having access to the Citadel and its resources and abilities might be her only chance in the war that is looming.
If this sounds complex that that's because it is - The Citadel of Weeping Pearls has a much more complex structure than the previous Novella, is told through no fewer than 4 individual viewpoints, and follows much more intricate and tangled story threads. The overlap with the previous book is minimal, there is only one character which appears in both, and even this is more of a cameo than a narrative necessity. The other, maybe even bigger difference though is the compactness, or maybe rather closed-off-ness of the story. Where On a Red Station had clearly defined story arc between Linh arriving and leaving again there is no such simple bracket in The Citadel. Instead it feels much more like an intermediate episode in a larger story, a decision point where the tracks are chosen for the future direction of events - I guess the structure really is much closer to the 'Slice of Life' approach frequently used in Manga and Anime, for example. This lack of story arc and closedness has led to criticism of the story, accusing it of being not a 'proper' story (er, why?), of being too much talking and not enough action (no, it's no action story. no, I don't think that's an issue), and of not being able to identify with and root for the protagonists, as their motivations and background is not logical and relatable.
In regards to that last point it's worth pointing out that, not only does the story greatly play on the family values and focus inherent in all of Aliette's Xuya stories set in the Dai Viet universe, but it also focuses on the Imperial Court, with characters tied into the political network and traditions set over millennia as much as into their own family and social networks, and the tensions and conflicts of interest which can and do result from that. Or from being severed from one or the other of those. If this makes it hard to relate to the characters then that might indeed be inherent in this (for most of us) alien setting, and all the traditions and associated cultural inertia it contains.
It also means that the logic of how people define their loyalties, how they react, and the logic of those decisions in their ancient, and ancestor-controlled culture do not always match the logic of how you or I would react and decide.
What stood out for me in this story was the personal impact of decisions in the past - made for all the right reasons at the time, and utterly undesirable now. And especially the impact of decisions and behaviour by mothers - this is very much a mother/daughter story: of the Empress and her banned Princess, of her sister the Princess and the Shipmind she gave birth to, and of the Engineer and the mother who abandoned her.
The story contains a magical box in the shape of a time machine, pieced together in a backwater by a scholar who left the court to look after her ill father, and an Engineer whose mother left with the Citadel. And whilst the take on the time travel paradox which is used is rather neat (and not one I can remember coming across before) it still felt rather McGuiver, and a bit (together with the teleportation, mental martial arts abilities etc) of a departure from the usually quite classic, technical Space Opera which normally dominates Aliette's future Xuya stories.
Now, let me not come across as overly negative - this is a great story, told in a, for a piece of that length, rather complex structure, and in sparse and tense language which I much enjoyed. It is markedly different from the earlier Novella, but not in a bad way - greatly recommended, and should it show up on the Hugo shortlist (it's nominated, and by the time you read this the shortlists will have been announced – ah, to know the future!) then I can certainly recommend that you read it and vote for it!
More Aliette de Bodard
Title: The Citadel of Weeping Pearls
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher URL: http://http://www.asimovs.com
Publication Date: Oct 2015
Review Date: 160401
Topic: Space Opera
Thanks to the author for the review copy!