You’d be hard-pressed to categorize Seven of Infinities, a new Aliette de Bodard novella by, in a bookstore. Equal parts science fiction, mystery, and romance, Seven of Infinities is genuinely a genre-bending and ambitious work. Unfortunately, it never fully delivers on its promise. Surprisingly, this is not because it fails to marry the disparate elements of its genres, but rather because it doesn’t succeed in delivering on key criteria of two of its chosen genres. As a romance, its pairing is conceptually interesting but not emotionally convincing; and as a mystery, its shocking and exciting opener peters out into a predictable and logically-questionable conclusion.
Seven of Infinities is set in the Xuya Universe, an alternate future universe where Asian empires, including Đại Việt, won the space race and spread across the galaxies. In a quiet corner of Đại Việt’s empire hides Vân, a scholar who elects to spend her days tutoring a student rather than aspiring to pass the imperial exams due to secrets she divulges to no one. Nonetheless, Vân’s kindness and talent has attracted Sunless Woods, a sentient spaceship—or mindship, as the book calls her—who presents herself as a scholar but is in fact a retired famous thief. When a woman dies in her student’s room, Vân and Sunless Woods together seek out the truth behind the woman’s death while grappling with their mutual attraction and their resurfacing pasts.
Easily the most successful aspect of Seven of Infinities is its world-building. While a number of connected short stories and novels have sketched out the Xuya Universe over the years, Seven of Infinities requires readers to have no prior knowledge of the shared universe. Bodard introduces readers to the fantastically different universe with an assured, inconspicuous hand.
In such a short work, she succeeds not only in communicating the large-scale technological and societal differences on which the plot hinges, but also the finer societal details that bring the setting to life. Readers know that at the top of the Xuya Universe’s socio-political hierarchy sits scholars from established lineages, and that the most talented of these scholars through passing imperial exams become administrators for the galactic empire. They also know that characters broker deals not at western-style taverns or bars, but at teahouses that host both poetry recitals and unsavory business dealings. At every level, Bodard has extrapolated the influence of Confucian traditions and Kinh culture with care. For example, she shows readers that mindships are the equals of humans by noting that mindships also possess familial relationships, and can be left wandering the universe hungry after death if not buried and honored with an ancestral altar. The result of these refractions of Viet culture in science fiction is a lush, evocative, utterly unique world.
The initial experience of reading Seven of Infinities is made even more enjoyable because Bodard has populated her world with interesting side characters with a real sense of history. Van’s student, Uyen, is well-mannered—except when she shows the streak of reckless bravery she’d inherited from her dead war hero mother. Sunless Woods’ old crew of thieves, collectively called Hải’s Children, include the delightfully trigger-happy Thiên Hoa and the laconic Bearer of Healing Wine. Even Vân’s memory implant, an AI that serves as the “voice of an ancestor” who can advise Vân in life and scholarly matters, is hilariously didactic and a little nosy, just like a real aunt.
It’s rather unfortunate then that the least charming characters are in fact the novella’s main characters, Vân and Sunless Woods. Perhaps this is merely a byproduct of spending time in their respective points-of-view, which made clear the thinness of their attraction, internal struggles, and illogical but plot-convenient decision-making.
When the novella opens, Vân and Sunless Woods are already well-acquainted. Bodard signals through inner monologue and their conversations that Sunless Woods and Vân admire each other, enjoy each other’s company, understand each other on an instinctual (if not literal level, given the secrets they keep), and are additionally hopelessly attracted to each other. However, these are shown facts, rather than truly seen and felt facts. If Bodard had made Seven of Infinities longer and shown more of the couple’s early relationship development, Sunless Woods and Vân’s romance may have had a firmer foundation from which to launch. Of course, there are many successful romance books that begin in media res—so perhaps the issue has more to do with Bodard’s written romantic dialogue, which is effusive and sentimental but lack that elusive element of “chemistry.”
These romance-related weaknesses work in a negative feedback loop with the novella’s plot-related weaknesses. As Seven of Infinities is a murder mystery, the plot can’t be discussed in too much detail without spoiling it. Take on faith, however, that Vân and Sunless Woods make several logically dubious decisions. At one point, Sunless Woods hides some investigative discoveries from Vân, Vân runs off to examine a matter herself, and they ultimately take several significant risks for each other. The plot decisions are themselves questionable, but they also create contradictions between the emotions readers are told the romantic pairing have towards each other, and the emotions readers see actually play out on the pages. As a galaxy-renowned thief, surely Sunless Woods would understand the risks of not sharing information with one’s team, so why would she not tell Vân, especially if she truly loves and trusts Vân? Knowing the dangerous people involved, why would Vân not take greater precautions and inform somebody, especially Sunless Woods, whom she had already entrusted with secrets from her past? Do their feelings shift so quickly for each other? Then, because these decisions undermine the reader’s faith in their romantic relationship, the final risks Vân and Sunless Woods take for each other and their happy-for-now ending feel even more implausible.
Seven of Infinities is overall not an unpleasant read. In fact, in the first half, it was downright exciting and, the Xuya Universe sprawling outwards and the spider webs knitting together in promising patterns. Unfortunately, in the latter half, the magic of the world retreated, and the final patterns the spider webs made ended up feeling distressingly simplistic and artificial. Ultimately, it was hard to continue suspending disbelief. While the Xuya Universe is absolutely a marvel, given the existence of other works set in the Xuya Universe—including short stories—it might be better for interested readers seek out those alternatives instead. Perhaps readers may then enjoy Bodard’s world-building without laboring through the weaknesses of Seven of Infinities.
Seven of Infinities
by Aliette de Bodard
Subterranean Press, $40.00
Nhu Le is an emerging writer from Boston. During the day, she’s a young professional in the social sector. At night, she wanders the hidden alleys of genre fiction.