The Red Scholar’s Wake ticks many boxes on my science fiction checklist: artificial lifeforms (can’t call them “AI”s these days) with human-like emotions; focus on relationships, complicated by extra-human concerns; realistic romance that complements the plot, instead of overshadowing it; great world building; a well-thought-out, imperfect, futuristic society; interesting supporting characters; creative vision of far-future technologies that isn’t just another Star Trek knockoff; and a satisfying finish that reasonably ties up the loose ends.
Xich Si (the novel employs liberal use of Vietnamese words and names, which contain diacritics I can’t begin to find, so please forgive me) is Protagonist #1, a prisoner of a pirate raid and would-be indentured pirate who lost her daughter during the scuffle, and is rightfully sad about it. Rice Fish is Protagonist #2, an organic ship computer who, through her own tragic loss, has found herself poised to lead the Red Banner, one of several factions in the pirate collective that all have love-hate relationships with each other.
In this universe, pirates are bloodthirsty killers who take what they want, when they want, laws be darned to heck and back.
Well, except for Rice Fish’s Red Banner. They want to be pirates—lead the pirates, in fact—but don’t seem to want to do any of the bad stuff that might qualify them as such. This lands them in hot water with the other factions, who want to continue their merry, amoral pillaging against the stuck-up Empires. Rice Fish’s dissenting vision of the future makes her a poor candidate for Pirate President, so she enlists Xich Si to help prove that her wife had been murdered by one of the other banners. That that should be plenty to change their piratey minds and win her the race! “Honor among thieves” and all that, right?
Anyway, a few “are you sure you’re pirates?” nitpicks aside, Red Scholar’s Wake expertly paints a complex social system in a far-future civilization with far-future problems, and attempts to address the conundrum of what happens to organized piracy in the long run: Are they still pirates, or must they become something else?
The relationship between Xich Si and Rice Fish moves at a satisfying pace, even if I can’t quite see how or why Rice Fish found the cowering little techie attractive. Then again, I’m not a living mind ship, so… *shrug*
Overall, if you’re a fan of space pirates, sapphic romance, and creative science fiction world building, The Red Scholar’s Wake is a worthy read.