The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
Published March 31, 2018
In the 125+ years since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes there have been countless adaptations, but I’ve never encountered a re-imagining quite as unique as The Tea Master and the Detective.
Set in a galactic empire inspired by Vietnamese culture, consulting detective Long Chau must team up with The Shadow’s Child, a sentient transport warship (known as a mindship) with PTSD, to solve a mystery. As a science-fiction novella it works; de Bodard’s world-building is detailed and refreshingly free from Western military conventions, and The Shadow’s Child is an engaging and sympathetic narrator. As a Holmes pastiche though, the execution falls flat. The mystery is, well, not much of a mystery at all, and the understanding between Long Chau and the mindship doesn’t feel earned.
Here’s where I make a confession. When it comes to Hugo or Nebula nominated books or novellas that are part of a broader world, I usually try to read the preceding works in order to contextualize the nominee. Reader, I ran out of time. I went into The Tea Master and the Detective without reading any of the author’s other Universe of Xuya novellas and I definitely felt the lack. The Tea Master and the Detective is technically a standalone, but to fully grasp the nuance of the world-building I’d recommend at least skimming the author’s page about the series here before diving into the novella.
I did love each of the characters individually. De Bodard may not be the first to gender swap Holmes and Watson, but what a joy to see two female characters team up to solve crime! Long Chau is an enigmatic and compelling presence as the abrasive consulting detective, although I wished her intelligence and deducing were shown more than told. The Shadow’s Child stole my heart though as a battle-scarred, compassionate ship eking out a living not as a transport ship but as a mixer of personalized tea blends that grant the drinker special properties. I wish the relationship between these two characters had undergone a more gradual transition from dislike/reluctant partners to mutual respect, but I enjoyed the journey anyway and would love to read another adventure that builds on this understanding.
The Tea Master and the Detective didn’t quite come together for me. I loved the premise of a Vietnamese-inspired empire and a female Sherlock Holmes in space, but found the pacing uneven and the plotting too simplistic for a detective story. I’m intrigued by de Bodard’s Universe of Xuya though and will be checking out more of her works in the future.