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The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

For the longest time, I have meant to read a book from Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya Universe of books. With the recent release of The Red Scholar’s Wake, I had the perfect excuse to do so, so here we go! Let us start with the summary and notices, then move on to my thoughts of the story.


From Amazon:

The cover of the book for the Kindle Edition of The Red Scholar's Wake. It shows Rice Fish in Vietnamese styled armor carrying a sword with Xích Si behind her facing away, but looking over her shoulder. A window behind them look out into space, showing the still-glowing remnants of a cracked planet, helping light the scene.
Kindle Edition Cover; artist unknown (Sorry!)

When tech scavenger Xích Si is captured and imprisoned by the infamous pirates of the Red Banner, she expects to be tortured or killed. Instead, their leader, Rice Fish, makes Xích Si an utterly incredible proposition: an offer of marriage.


Both have their reasons for this arrangement: Xích Si needs protection; Rice Fish, a sentient spaceship, needs a technical expert to investigate the death of her first wife, the Red Scholar. That’s all there is to it.


But as the interstellar war against piracy rages on and their own investigation reaches a dire conclusion, the two of them discover that their arrangement has evolved into something much less business-focused and more personal...and tender. And maybe the best thing that’s ever happened to either of them—but only if they can find a way to survive together.

The Print Cover; art by Alyssa Winans

A rich space opera and an intensely soft romance, from an exceptional SF author.


CWs for The Red Scholar’s Wake would include violence, piracy, kidnapping, political marriage, corruption, betrayal, indentured servitude/slavery, exploitation & abuse, sexual activity, mourning a recent death, discussions of emotional trauma in toxic spousal and parent-child relationships, injury of major characters, discussions of spacing/death by vacuum, body horror.

My Thoughts on the Book

The Red Scholar’s Wake is a book where the title tells you more than you might expect at first glance. Yes, our book starts with the mourning ceremonies for Huân, wife to the sentient mindship Rice Fish and the Red Scholar (leader of one of the four pirate Banners [fleets]). Yes, Xích Si is mourning her separation from her old life and her daughter. If she refuses the offer of marriage to Rice Fish and instead seeks to return home, than she will be likely forfeiting the lives of herself and her loved ones as local authorities assume that survival means Xích Si is a collaborator in the pirates’ crimes.


However, we also come to discover that Huân’s passage had also left a wake cutting through the social fabric of the Banners and personal lives of her loved ones that did not come to the surface until Huân had died. Xích Si does her best to start encouraging repair in the rifts and traumas left behind by Huân’s unfortunate personal decisions, but only time will tell how successful her efforts will be. By the end of the story, there seems to be satisfying progress being made in healing issues related to the Banners' futures, Rice Fish’s relationship toxic thoughts about herself & relationships, and the broken relationship between Rice Fish and her son Hổ, but they are certainly not resolved.


While reading this book, I could not help but draw parallels in my mind to one of Aliette’s other works I have read, In The Vanishers’ Palace. I feel the relationship between our main characters in this book is better developed than the partnerships from the novella. However, The Red Scholar’s Wake also did not hit the highs of surrealism and emotion that I experienced in that novella. That is probably an unfair comparison, but one I could not help making. After all, the reality-distorting surrealism in In The Vanishers’ Palace is one of the main threats of the novella and is intense to the point of being occasionally disorientating for the reader. It is probably best that it is less of a focus in the Xuya Universe series, but I was glad to see it on occasion here. I was also very pleased to see the cultural parallels between the two universes drawing on Việt and other East/Southeast Asian cultures.


Long story short, I will give The Red Scholar’s Wake the same rating I gave In The Vanishers’ Palace, a 4.5 out of 5. While I feel The Red Scholar’s Wake is a better crafted story, I did not quite hit the same emotional highs I experienced in In The Vanishers’ Palace or the Obsidian and Blood series. I certainly look forward to seeing what implications Xích Si and Red Fish’s actions may have for the rest of the universe moving forward and checking out other tales Aliette de Bodard has already crafted in this universe so far.

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