Aliette de Bodard’s The Red Scholar’s Wake was one of my most anticipated novels of 2022 and it did not disappoint. Inspired by the author’s Vietnamese heritage, this is the story of an arranged marriage between Xich Si, bot maker, data analyst, mother and scavenger and Rice Fish, sentient ship and space pirate leader. Part sapphic romance, part space opera, with mature characters in the prime of their lives – no twenty-year-olds finding their feet here – and all gorgeous prose. Aliette de Bodard is one of the strongest writers in SFF working today – her novella, Fireheart Tiger was just up for a Hugo last week and this is up on the same level in terms of writing and general craft.
When Rice Fish captures Xich Si’s ship, the latter expects to be tortured to death – or at the very least, an unpleasant imprisonment. So, when Rice Fish proposes a marriage alliance as the inciting incident of The Red Scholar’s Wake, Xich Si is taken aback, especially since Rice Fish, sentient ship, is famously married to the Red Scholar. Except, the Red Scholar has just died under mysterious circumstances, and this new alliance would be mutually beneficial, protecting them both and allowing Rice Fish to investigate her wife’s death. And of course, over the remainder of the story, they do, in fact, fall in love. But this isn’t a cheesy romance. This is a science fiction story that happens to have romantic elements. (Side note: with the amount of times I’m typing the words “rice” and “fish” and the context of Aliette’s Vietnamese heritage, I REALLY want some Vietnamese food now. Give me that fish sauce on rice.)
What made this truly stand out to me was Aliette’s writing. As mentioned above, Aliette’s prose is outstanding. It is descriptive and evocative without being overwrought, it is witty and full of emotion. Every character, every scene comes to life immediately and plastically, drawing the reader into this world of space pirates, family biological and found and relationships of all sorts. It is at times delicate, and at other times matter of fact and then again it will make you laugh out loud with dry wit. The characters’ maturity makes them stand out in a market saturated with coming-of-age stories across young adult and adult publishing, and it is a true breath of fresh air to read about protagonists coming into their story after a life well-lived, with attachments and history, knowing who they are and what they want. I could not recommend The Red Scholar’s Wake more.