Wonderful things have been said about this book by better bloggers than myself, so let me just point out two things that were done better than most books. This is the story of a space station in the Dai Viet empire during a delicate time--there is a war on, Prosperity Station is packed with refugees, and many of its most prominent citizens/family members have been called away.
The story is told from two viewpoint characters, which is not that uncommon. Neither of them is first person, which I think is a strength, but we get very close to both of them and get to know them very well. The part of this that is remarkable is that these two women are completely at odds with each other, both finding the other to be arrogant and undeservedly proud.
Quyen has been left to manage things, along with the station's AI consciousness, the Honored Ancestress. She knows that she's not up to the job--not educated enough, not experienced enough, and just barely holding things together, but she's the only one to do the job since all the greater family members have been called away to the war. Then Linh arrives on the station, a powerful magistrate who left her planet seeking help against the rebels, only to learn that they destroyed everything after she departed. She has no resources and has lost everything, and is essentially reduced to taking shelter among the distant relatives on Prosper, whom she does not know.
They dislike each other immediately; Linh thinks Quyen is controlling and drunk on her own power, and Quyen thinks Linh is arrogant and used to having her own way. The thing is, they're both right, and they're both wrong, and throughout the book, we walk both sides of this line, see both sides of this argument, and come to care about both women as they both suffer and watch helplessly while everything they've worked toward crumbles.
How often, really, are you not on anyone's side in a book? How often do you like two characters who hate each other where it doesn't turn out to be a misunderstanding, and they finally clear it up by talking it out and then end up allies--or, more commonly, in love? Not here. Quyen and Linh are not actually at odds through most of the book, but they never become besties, and I kind of love that.
The other thing I loved was the culture, and how perfectly Bodard built the Dai Viet empire, full of rich cultural nuance, without ever once doing an info dump. We know that this is an interstellar empire with roots in China, and that there are mindships and stations with minds. We know that the environments of these spaces are maintained through complicated software. All standard worldbuilding types of things.
We also understand--not just know, but understand--how the honor of the family is everything, to the point where we feel fear when it's in danger. We understand the importance of education, the lengths to which people will go to pass rigorous testing, and what is at stake for them. The value of ancestors, whose memories are implanted in their most honored offspring so that they may continue to influence the family. What it means to be a lesser spouse in a great marriage, and to find your family in theirs. Education, as demonstrated through poetry and allusions, and the constant dance of honor and status that must be managed perfectly.
That's a lot to load into even a long novella. Add onto this the feeling of having another presence in your mind--the Honored Ancestress, with whom you can communicate and who is servant, guardian, companion. The risk of losing that connection, the emotional weight of that. The stifling pressure of this complicated, familial game, and the risk of trying to leave it. The absolute horror of knowing that you made what seemed like a reasonable choice, but was the wrong one, and that people you loved have suffered for it.
I hate how vague I'm being, but I don't want to tell you the story; I want to make you read it. And the part that I found absolutely amazing here is how much I was made to truly understand in such a short space, and how I was able to really get a glimpse of what it meant to be each of these women--these different, struggling women, who live in a future I can hardly imagine, in a society so different from mind, and who are not only different from each other, but both different from me. And I get them now. Aliette de Bodard did that, and I'm in awe.
Great book; definitely read it.