Book Review: On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard

For generations Prosper Station has thrived under the guidance of its Honoured Ancestress: born of a human womb, the station’s artificial intelligence has offered guidance and protection to its human relatives.

But war has come to the Dai Viet Empire. Prosper’s brightest minds have been called away to defend the Emperor; and a flood of disorientated refugees strain the station’s resources. As deprivations cause the station’s ordinary life to unravel, uncovering old grudges and tearing apart the decimated family, Station Mistress Quyen and the Honoured Ancestress struggle to keep their relatives united and safe. What Quyen does not know is that the Honoured Ancestress herself is faltering, her mind eaten away by a disease that seems to have no cure; and that the future of the station itself might hang in the balance… 

I have always wanted to read more Xuya universe books but they don’t feel like the binge watching kind – more like stories that need to be contemplated about. That’s why I’m here many months later, reading another novella set in this world.

Another book where I didn’t bother reading the blurb, because I knew I would enjoy it anyways. And enjoy it I did. This is an emotional story of two women – strong in their own right, which kind of sets them on combative paths. Linh is a war refugee, trying to keep down the grief of losing all her friends to rebellion by projecting a more steely persona reminiscent of her previous position as a magistrate. Quyen on the other hand technically doesn’t have accomplishments to her name but after her husband left for war and never returned, she has been the administrator of Prosper station, keeping everything going during difficult times. Both of them very much feel the need to control everything around them and not yield to anyone, so naturally they find themselves butting heads.

But the beauty of the author’s writing is in how she makes us empathize with both the women and everyone else from the family, despite their actions. They can feel a little unyielding and stubborn, but we understand exactly why they are behaving that way. We also get to explore the various forms of grief – grief for being unheard when the empire is collapsing with war and people are dying in droves, grief for the helplessness that one is unable to save anyone, grief for not knowing if one’s loved ones are alive or dead, grief for the grandmotherly AI Mind of the station who may be malfunctioning, grief for a life not led and a love missed, and grief for being unable to be a family. While it’s about grief though, it’s not without its slightly mysterious subplots and a consistent undertone of war and rebellion and worry for the people on various planets and stations. The writing is evocative and emotional, and I couldn’t put it down once I began.

While the author does mention that she derived inspiration from the famous Chinese classic, A Dream of the Red Chamber, I don’t know enough about it to understand the similarities. However, I loved the nods to Three Kingdoms and the fan favorite Liu Bei, and was feeling pretty proud that I understood the references. On the whole, this was very enjoyable if a bit bittersweet towards the end, but it’s a lovely addition to the Xuya universe and I can’t wait to read more stories

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