A Fire Born of Exile

The latest Xuya universe novel from Aliette de Bodard is billed as inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo. It is less of a re-telling than Gwyneth Jones’s excellent Spirit (my review of which is re-printed in this issue), but the story definitely benefits from the inspiration.

The action is set in a remote part of Xuya civilization, the Scattered Pearls Belt, far from the Imperial Court. The Belt is ruled over by the Prefect, Tinh Đức, who has a reputation for ruthlessness. She is ably supported by General Tuyết. (Aliette, I hope I have got the accented characters right; my apologies if not.) Some years ago, a major rebellion broke out in the Empire, centered on the Belt. These two formidable women have made it their business to make sure such a thing never happens again, no matter how many innocents have to suffer in the process.

The book, however, is not primarily about these women. It is about the Prefect’s daughter, Minh, and her best friend, Heart’s Sorrow, a mindship who is the General’s son. Into their lives comes Sủỏng Quỳnh, known as The Alchemist of Streams and Hills, a beautiful and wealthy socialite who, perhaps bored with court life, has decided to spend some time in the Belt. Of course, as you might guess, the Alchemist has a secret history, and is bent on revenge against those who have wronged her in the past. She’s not above manipulating a couple of rich and naïve teenagers in order to get at her targets.

However, the best laid plans for revenge often founder. In this case, the primary cause of Quỳnh’s problems turns out to be Thiên Hoà, a pretty young engineer. Hoà and her sister have been employed by a group of rich kids to repair an ancient mindship, and from that simple fact much will unravel.

Mention of mindships reminds me that de Bodard’s ships are significantly different from those of other space opera writers such as Banks and Powell. As noted above, Heart’s Sorrow is a child of General Tuyết. Other mindships in the book are also family members. Mindships are born, raised and educated by humans. That’s something I hope to see de Bodard explore more in future books.

Regular readers will know that I’m not a big fan of romance as a genre, and one of the main reasons for that is the formulaic nature of the plots. In particular the need for the two main characters to have a falling out part way through the novel, and then a reconciliation at the end, leads to all sorts of convoluted and atypical behaviour. You may recall that this caused my one reservation about de Bodard’s previous book, The Red Scholar’s Wake.

I am happy to report that A Fire Born of Exile has a much more complicated plot, full of opportunities for misunderstanding and betrayal. Because of this, the falling out between Quỳnh and Hoà is entirely believable, and indeed predictable.

One of the interesting things about reading the Xuya books is the insight that they give into Vietnamese culture. The whole auntie thing is a bit of a mystery to me. So is the use of ‘big sis’, ‘little sis’ and so on, which I think is related to the profusion of pronouns that you get in Vietnamese. In this book I found something else interesting:

… she seemed to only think of being wanted in terms of usefulness. Such an odd, sad way of looking at the world.

Oh, Aliette, let me tell you about the Protestant Work Ethic. But I suspect you know, and said that deliberately.

I have something else to thank de Bodard for, but that needs to be private. In the meantime, this is a good book. But you knew that, right?

book cover
Title: A Fire Born of Exile
By: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Gollancz
Purchase links:
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Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
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