Aliette de Bodard’s ‘The Citadel of Weeping Pearls’ is an unimpressive extension of her Xuya science-fiction sequence

June 15, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 15, 2019

Some months ago, I read a short novel called On a Red Station, Drifting, set in a future galactic empire guided by the values of ancient Vietnamese culture. Aliette de Bodard’s tale evoked a very different vision of human expansion than the American- and European-centered versions with which I grew up. De Bodard is an American-born software engineer who shares French and Vietnamese heritage who has spent most of her life in France, and I was fascinated and enchanted by her creation.

Regrettably, I was far less absorbed by de Bodard’s 2017 follow-up, The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, which is set a few decades after Red Station. The empire is still embroiled in conflict, but the irresolute young emperor has been replaced a number of years ago by a much firmer queen. In a bid to counter a new threat, Empress Mi Hiep has launched a project to find the titular citadel.

The citadel is not a building but a fleet commanded by the monarch’s estranged daughter, Bright Princess Ngoc Minh. The highly advanced ships disappeared three decades ago, but now Mi Hiep believes she needs the citadel’s innovative engines, defenses and weapons to repel a surprisingly swift invasion fleet dispatched by a rival kingdom.

The recovery project is faring poorly. When the story opens, one of the effort’s leaders has herself vanished without a trace. It falls to the empress’s former lover, General Suu Nuoc, to attempt to find the missing Bach Cuc, the empire’s grand master of design harmony — and, ideally, use the grand master’s aid to track down Ngoc Minh’s ship.

The general, who supervises the empire’s military research, is aided and abetted by an uneasy duo. It includes Ngoc Minh’s embittered younger sister, Thousand-Heart Princess Ngoc Ha, and Ngoc Ha’s daughter, The Turtle’s Golden Claw, who is the biomechanical brain at the heart of the interstellar mindship bearing that name. The younger princess, although outwardly dutiful, resents her entire family, as de Bodard explains in this early scene:

“I’m sorry about Grand Master Bach Cuc,” Ngoc Ha said to The Turtle’s Golden Claw. “I’m sure General Suu Nuoc will find her. He’s good at what he does.” 

“I’m sure he is,” the ship said. Her avatar turned, taking in the laboratory. “Mother…” 

Ngoc Ha braced herself — surely that sick feeling of panic in her belly wasn’t what one was meant to feel, when one’s child came to them with problems? “Yes, child?” 

“I’m scared.” The Turtle’s Golden Claw’s voice was barely audible. “This is too large. How could she disappear like that — with no warning, in the heart of the Purple Forbidden City?” 

Meaning inside influence. Meaning court intrigues; the same ones she’d stepped away from after Ngoc Minh’s disappearance. “I don’t know,” Ngoc Ha said. “But not everyone wanted Ngoc Minh to come back.” Including her. She was glad to be rid of her sister the Bright Princess; to never have to be compared to her again; to never look at her and realize they had so little in common — not even Mother’s love. But she wasn’t the only one. Lady Linh was loyal to Mother; but the rest of the scholars weren’t, not so much. Huu Tam, Mother’s choice of heir, was dutiful and wise: not wild, not incomprehensibly attractive like Bright Princess Ngoc Minh; but safe. “Not everyone likes their little worlds overturned.” 

“What about you?” the ship asked, with simple and devastating perspicacity. 

“I don’t know,” Ngoc Ha lied. She didn’t know what she’d do, if she saw Ngoc Minh again — embrace her, shout at her — show her how much her life had twisted and stretched in the wake of her elder sister’s flight? 

“Princess,” Suu Nuoc said. He stood by her, at quiet ease. “My apologies. I was busy.” 

“I can imagine,” Ngoc Ha said. 

“I’m surprised to see you here,” Suu Nuoc said, slowly. “I thought you had no interest in what Grand Master Bach Cuc was doing.” 

The Turtle’s Golden Claw is my daughter,” Ngoc Ha said. 

“Of course,” Suu Nuoc said. He watched her, for a while, with that intent expression on his face that made her feel pierced by a spear. “But that’s not why you’re here, is it?” 

The search eventually leads to an out-of-the-way outpost that is home to a low-status engineer whose mother was on aboard the lost Citadel. The engineer, Diem Huong, appears to have provided Bach Cuc with information that led her to initiate a dangerous experiment.

The entire scenario is rife with conflict. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any of the characters to be as compelling as either of the leads in Red Station (one of whom, Linh, is a minor figure in this story). Worse yet, the proceedings never seem to lead anywhere interesting — even as one character discovers an unprecedented method of traveling to what may be the past.

On a technical level, I was repeatedly annoyed by a pet peeve of mine — a detail that many will dismiss as trivial: Although the quotation marks were “smart,” all of the apostrophes were “dumb.” (I complained about a similar issue in my review of Deathworld.)

The Citadel of Weeping Pearls is the third entry in what The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls the Xuya Universe. (On a Red Station, Drifting was the earliest book in the sequence, which includes five publications and other short works.) Although I wasn’t much taken by this story, I expect to read more of de Bodard’s writing, and of her Xuya tales, in the future.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: