The Citadel of Weeping Pearls was a great wonder; a perfect meld between cutting edge technology and esoteric sciences—its inhabitants capable of teleporting themselves anywhere, its weapons small and undetectable and deadly.
Thirty years ago, threatened by an invading fleet from the Dai Viet Empire, the Citadel disappeared and was never seen again.
But now the Dai Viet Empire itself is under siege, on the verge of a war against an enemy that turns their own mindships against them; and the Empress, who once gave the order to raze the Citadel, is in desperate needs of its weapons. Meanwhile, on a small isolated space station, an engineer obsessed with the past works on a machine that will send her thirty years back, to the height of the Citadel’s power.
But the Citadel’s disappearance still extends chains of grief and regrets all the way into the fraught atmosphere of the Imperial Court; and this casual summoning of the past might have world-shattering consequences…
This week is Aliette de Bodard week on the blog; but that’s because de Bodard has multiple releases this week – not only House of Binding Thorns, but also the self-publication of the novella Citadel of Weeping Pearls, originally published in Asimov’s Magazine in 2015, reprinted in a number of Year’s Best anthologies, and a finalist for the Locus Awards. I bought a copy from her at Eastercon, and finally got to read the story…
Citadel of Weeping Pearls is another entry in de Bodard’s Xuya world, also known as South-East Asia In Space; the Xuya series of stories all take place in a Vietnamese space empire, and the culture, texture, taste and aesthetic of the world always reflect that. In the case of Citadel of Weeping Pearls, de Bodard really brings the flavours of her world to life; they can be smelled and tasted on the air, and things are described in terms of texture to be felt, as much as they’re seen, an approach which brings all five senses into this futuristic world and really immerses them there. The one sight that gets a little overlooked in all this is sight; for a primarily visual reader (reading culture?), there’s little to sieze hold of apart from certain ceremonial clothing and brief moments de Bodard chooses to highlight.
The plot of Citadel of Weeping Pearls is a complicated one, about the past, about familial relationships, and about regret; for something that at first glance is just a locked-room mystery, and that spins out into courtly intrigue, interstellar diplomacy, and time travel, de Bodard sets a lot of plates spinning in a very small space. There are two almost disconnected plots, one in the background – that of interstellar war – and one in the foreground, that of the mystery surrounding the Empress’ daughter’s disappearance with her space habitat, the titular Citadel of Weeping Pearls. de Bodard uses a very small cast and a very tight focus on a small number of characters, moving around through a number of different perspectives to see the events through different eyes, but it is well controlled, and the viewpoints are very distinct and each adds something different to the story and the plot.
The characters are, of course, the heart of the novella. Citadel of Weeping Pearls is almost a domestic drama writ onto a huge scale; most of the cast are members of (or adjuncts to) the close Imperial family, and include the Empress herself, her daughter, her daughter’s daughter, and a former lover of the Empress; the only other viewpoint character is the daughter of someone who disappeared on the Citadel. de Bodard makes a lot of use of these familial emotional connections; they’re the real core of the story, exploring how families work, how different people see the same decisions, and how family interactions can have huge repercussions and affect an entire life. Citadel of Weeping Pearls isn’t big and flashy, for the most part – it involves interstellar war and time travel, but it’s essentially a quite novel – which means we get to see characters not in full-on crisis mode, and de Bodard really does make solid use of that. The one problem of Citadel of Weeping Pearl‘s characters is that they all feel like they’re of the same class, despite some references otherwise; they all seem to essentially see the world in the same way, in that regard, and it would have been nice to see a take on the situation informed by a completely different class background.
In the end, though, every new window onto the Xuya universe is a treasured addition to this expansive story-world, and Citadel of Weeping Pearls is no exception; de Bodard has delivered a really good novella worth your time and money.
DISCLOSURE: Aliette is a good friend, who I’ve hosted here for guest spots in the past and will hopefully do so again.
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