The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard, is a science fiction novella, featuring as its two main characters a detective and drug addict, Long Chau, and a sentient mindship, The Shadow’s Child. Following a war, The Shadow’s Child is ekeing out a living preparing mind-altering teas for humans, so that they can endure travel into deep space. Scientist Long Chau engages her to take her into deep space – the location of The Shadow’s Child’s worst memories – to find a corpse for study. When the corpse turns out to have been murdered, Long Chau insists on investigating. However, as they try to work out what happened, The Shadow’s Child realises Long Chau may be keeping some secrets herself…

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A novella of 96 pages should not take six weeks to read, but I just could not get into this. I think the problem is the way it was marketed and talked about, as much as anything else. This won the Nebula for best novella a few years ago and was nominated for a Hugo, and around that time I heard a lot of SF people talking about it as if it were a standalone, somewhat inspired by Sherlock Holmes. I bought it on that understanding. But I was missing such a huge chunk of the worldbuilding, and once I was most of the way through the book, I realised that it’s actually part of a larger series (albeit that most of them were published after this). It’s pretty common, with science fiction novellas and short stories, that you just get chucked into a world and expected to pick it up as you go along. I am someone who needs for there to be some explanation of what’s happening in order for that to work. This can be done successfully – there are some great SF short stories on Levar Burton’s podcast, for instance – but I don’t think it was done particularly well here.

That said, I think if you are willing to just accept the world as it is in the novella, this might work for you better. Lots of people love this story and I am somewhat in the minority. And there is a lot to enjoy – the character of Long Chau is an interesting take on Sherlock Holmes, with her use of drugs, fascination with science, and questionable people skills. I also enjoyed reading from The Shadow’s Child’s perspective. I think de Bodard did a good job making her feel like a person but not a human – which is what you want when you’re reading from such an unusual perspective. Even the resolution and explanations, when they come, are fairly well-paced and interesting. This is an interesting novella – but I don’t think I am sufficiently interested to explore the rest of the universe.