The Tea Master and the Detective


Aliette de Bodard


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

March 21, 2021

he Tea Master and the Detective collected numerous awards, it won the 2108 Nebula for best novella and was nominated for best novella at the 2019 Hugos, 2019 Locus Awards and 2019 World Fantasy Award. But despite all this acclaim, I found I was frustrated by the story; I wish it had been expanded into a novel. There are a lot of hints and glimpses of developed universe, but too much is left unexplained. I felt like I had come into the story in the middle of a series, but, near as I can tell, The Tea Master and the Detective is the first story featuring Long Chau and The Shadow's Child. I read a hard-copy edition, it was just 92 pages long. Clearly the ideas contained within merited a longer story.

The story features an Artificial Intelligence, called a mindship, that has the name The Shadow's Child. This mindship is physically located in a vast starship, but using avatars and virtual-presence, The Shadow's Child can occupy human space. It can appear to eat and drink and converse like a mortal human. The Shadow's Child is a traumatized survivor of war incident that left its entire crew dead, and the ship itself stranded in deep space. (Deep space is a concept that is frustratingly incomplete - I got the impression that there are gradients to space, the deeper you go, the more reality is warped, yet apparently the deepness of space allows faster than light travel.) To survive in deep space, humans exist on a specialized concoction of drugs. The Shadow's Child has retired from military service (apparently its giant space ship just hangs idly outside an orbital?) and it makes a living by brewing the mind-altering drugs for human deep-space travelers. These potent drugs are called "teas", The Shadow's Child is the "tea master" in the title of this novella.

Into the tea shop of The Shadow's Child comes a customer named Long Chau. Long Chau calls herself a "consulting detective", but The Shadow's Child has never heard of such a profession. Long Chau wants to study the effects of sudden decompression on humans, and for this she needs to procure a corpse. The story hints of uprising, famine and conflict, so there should be plenty of corpses available. But unfortunately, the corpse that Long Chau and The Shadow's Child procure turns out to have been murdered. A brief investigation ensues.

The world-building is intriguing, but because it is interesting, it was frustrating that is was so incomplete. The protagonists live in one of the orbitals/habitats of something called The Scattered Pearls belt; off hand references in the story indicate that this is the low rent district, the "inner habitats" are wealthier. The culture is reminiscent of oriental Earth countries - they dress in silk kimonos, drink tea and use names that sound like East Asia names. But there is no history provided, no idea if the Scattered Pearls orbit our sun or somewhere else in the galaxy.

The Shadow's Child controls an army of bots. The bots allow the avatar to physically interact with Long Chau; but again they are not fully developed.

I feel that I only got part of a bigger story. Maybe this story will be expanded by the author in the future. There are plenty of interesting ideas and a universe to explore.