Vân is a scholar from a poor background, eking out a living in the orbitals of the Scattered Pearls Belt as a tutor to a rich family, while hiding the illegal artificial mem-implant she manufactured as a student.
Sunless Woods is a mindship—and not just any mindship, but a notorious thief and a master of disguise. She’s come to the Belt to retire, but is drawn to Vân’s resolute integrity.
When a mysterious corpse is found in the quarters of Vân’s student, Vân and Sunless Woods find themselves following a trail of greed and murder that will lead them from teahouses and ascetic havens to the wreck of a mindship–and to the devastating secrets they’ve kept from each other.
I have enjoyed whatever short fiction I’ve come across till date by Aliette de Bodard, so I excited when I got the advance copy of this one. However, this was my first in her Xuya universe and it was such a fascinating dive into this world.
I wasn’t sure how much I would understand being thrown into this universe which already has many published stories set in it, so I decided to read up about the world itself on the author’s website, and I thought it was nice to get that background. But I was very glad that I really didn’t need to know too much of it before getting into this story, because it’s self contained and vague enough to be intriguing as well as rewarding. The writing in this is really beautiful and poetic, captivating me right from the get go. I couldn’t understand how a romance between a human and an AI mind ship would work, but the author makes it absolutely believable as well as emotional, and I was completely enchanted. Add to this a very interesting and mysterious murder plot, a lovely teacher student relationship and some very eccentric past heist crew members, and this becomes a short but very enjoyable story.
I also enjoyed the theme of filial piety, what it means to be dutiful towards the younger ones in your family and how far should one be ready to go for the sake of duty. There are also some interesting conversations about righteousness, doing the correct thing even if it goes against empire’s policy and how it’s possible to be critical of such policy and wanting to be a part of it to make it change for the better.
To conclude, this was a beautifully written murder mystery with a romantic plot, and I thoroughly enjoyed both the elements. You’ll probably love it even more if you’ve read any of the other stories set in the Xuya universe, but it should be equally compelling for anyone like me just treading into this world. My only complaint with works such as this is as usual that it’s short and I wish it was longer and we could see more of the characters. And now I’m just more excited for the author’s next work, which unfortunately doesn’t come out for quite a while.
PS: Thank you to Subterranean Press and Netgalley for providing me with this advance copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.