Bite-size Books: The Citadel of Weeping Pearls

Book cover: The Citadel of Weeping Pearls - Aliette de Bodard (an Asian woman in flowing red dress sits on a dragon throne against a backdrop of stars and towers. Seriously gorgeous, this one)The Empress ordered her fleets to destroy the Citadel of Weeping Pearls and its ruler – her daughter – for fear of the weapons their unusual science was creating. But the Citadel disappeared. 30 years later, with war looming against an enemy who can turn their mindships against them, can the Bright Princess be found – and persuaded to come home?

When I return to Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya stories after a good long time away, it always takes me a while to recover. They take my breath almost from the start, and then scour away at my emotions until I’m all eyes and water and sore heart. It should go without saying that I love them without reservation.

The Citadel of Weeping Pearls is probably the most immersive story I’ve read in this universe (I’m yet to read The Tea Master and the Detective), and while – as with most tales of the Xuya – it is primarily interested in matters of family and feelings (I will never get over A Hundred and Seventy Storms), I feel I got a better sense of the world – or of the world-building coming together. This may simply be my understanding of the Xuya universe growing with each story I read, of course.

The family on this occasion is that of the Empress herself. Her eldest daughter and heir is thirty years gone, but nobody seems to think of the Bright Princess as dead. Perhaps that’s fair. Her people had mastered teleportation, their science near indistinguishable from magic, their perceived lack of commitment to the Empire an unmistakable threat. Her death is unimaginable. But her absence tore holes in the lives of those left behind.

The Empress, filled with regret for a daughter she never understood and ultimately tried to kill. A daughter who may now be her only hope for fighting her way out of a war with an enemy who has learnt how to hijack her sentient ships.

The Thousand-Heart Princess, ordered to bear a mindship purely so that it can search for traces of the vanished Citadel in the deep spaces. Her unwanted daughter, The Turtle’s Golden Claw, keen to fulfil her mission – at least in part for the hope it will win her the affection she craves.

Outside the royal family, common-born engineer Diem Huong is haunted by the knowledge her mother sent her away shortly before the Citadel disappeared and longs to be reunited. It is her obsession that will open the door to the past.

The deep bonds between mothers and daughters are contrasted unflinchingly with the damage they inflicted on one another. The Empress demands complete obedience, and cannot brook any reservation of loyalty, let alone dissent. The elder Princess chose her own path, and retreated until she could go no further. The younger Princess has submitted to her mother’s orders, but holds her mindship daughter at bay, unwilling or unable to break out of her lonely shell of resentment.

There are no heart-warming mother-daughter relationships here, only women exploring the idea of reconciliation, separated by time. It could be easy to hate the Empress, but we spend enough time with her to see that she’s as arrogant as her position dictates, but also ruthlessly pragmatic. Likewise, it could be easy to despise Ngoc Ha for her coldness, but it’s clear her own childhood was no warmer; her elder sister perhaps the only one who showed her the affection she instinctively withholds from her child (and is that instinct self-preservation, having lost the person she loved?).

These conflicted relationships are the heart of the novella – a vanished scientist, time travel and interstellar war all little more than subplots to give it context and drive the characters to a place where they can confront their feelings and choose how to move forward. Those seeking a flashy, martial space opera may be disappointed, but I found it very satisfying.

That said, the broader context is fascinating in its own right. We get to see the stifling formalities of the court and the AI-generated ancestors (I am intrigued by the idea of the ancestors living on as digital projections, and horrified by it; the uncanny valley laid bare in what is lost to the digitisation process). While we see very little of the impending threat from beyond the borders, the depiction of the hijacked mindships was upsetting (especially when contrasted with the exuberant vibrancy of The Turtle’s Golden Claw).

Citadel of Weeping Pearls reinforced that I really need to get on and read the many other Xuya stories I haven’t yet got to. There’s a certain tone – somewhere between reflective and melancholy – that has me thrumming from the get-go. Add in a richly imagined space empire based on Viet traditions rather than Western ones, and themes that go straight for the heart and I’m helplessly engaged every time.