A Psalm for the Wild-Built
(Monk and Robot #1)
By Becky Chambers
Tordotcom Books — July 2021
ISBN: 9781250236210 — Hardcover — 147 pp.
A week from my writing this, the second Monk and Robot book (A Prayer for the Crown-Shy) gets released. I haven’t had the chance to read that one yet, but will eagerly grab a copy. This seems like a good time to put up a review of the first book – last year’s A Psalm for the Wild-Built – to get this on the radar of anyone who hasn’t discovered Becky Chambers’ series yet. If you’ve already read the first novella, check out this review of the sequel from my reviewing colleague Shazzie, over at Fantasy Book Critic.
Humanity has settled the moon of Panga and built a utopic civilization in balance with the other biological inhabitants, leaving areas unsettled as preserves for other species. Now absent from their civilization are the robots, artificial workers that gained sentience and chose to depart into the wilderness, centuries ago, in search of their own purpose and destiny. The robots have since faded into cultural myth.
Sibling Dex of the Meadow Den Monastery has begun to feel directionless, restless for deeper connection to others and life. They decide to leave, to drift the Pangan countryside serving as a tea monk: a wandering attendant who ministers to any who need a break: a sympathetic ear and that perfect cup of hot tea that can warm the heart and soul.
New to the role, Dex at first stumbles at finding just the right brew to match the needs of their guests. But, they quickly learn and adapt, gaining experience to become one of the most sought-after tea monks around. Just as they begin to feel as if they found their strength of purpose, and settle into the familiarity of their routine, Dex finds something unfathomable emerge from the forest wilderness to reignite their insecurity and feelings of inadequacy.
A robot named Splendid Speckled Mosscap enters their camp and enthusiastically declares they have returned to honor an old promise to humanity. Mosscap poses a simple question of Dex: “What do people need?” The tea monk is at a loss for words of how to reply.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a peaceful novella, an embodiment of that feeling of a nice cup of tea. There is little to it in way of a conflict, at least in the typical sense that one might find in a SFF plot. It’s a journey of empathetic friendship between two characters who discover one another over conversation. Dex and Mosscap are two very different individuals. A humble tea monk, Dex is timid and restrained, but also lacks self confidence. Mosscap bursts with curiosity and an assured optimism. Biological and artificial, they each view one another with a good bit of initial confusion and bewilderment.
Through their existential conversations and building friendship comes the discovery of each of their unique points of view, a celebration of their differences, and a perfectly matched partnership that gives them each greater purpose than they could have apart.
As I began A Psalm for the Wild-Built, I wondered how much I would like it. Most fiction relies on antagonism in polar opposite to the main character(s), with conflicts, setbacks, and dire threats aplenty. So often SFF tends toward the darker side of things. Even if not full-on ‘grim-dark’, there’s usually some amount of violence or tragedy to be overcome. Dystopias are the norm. I’m used to that; I enjoy that. The only other case of a more optimistic type of SFF story that I can think of reading is The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. It’s a beloved novel for many, but I couldn’t stand its optimism and peaceful resolutions. I wondered if I just didn’t like bright idealism.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built showed that I can go for that flavor of things. For whatever reason, the characters and world created by Becky Chambers here just worked. The conversation between Mosscap and Dex might not read as profound by all, but it should prove fascinating and worthwhile. Chambers illustrates personalities and a relationship of how two individuals coming from two different backgrounds and experiences can find a way to bridge. It requires a calm, an openness; an appreciation of life, open ears, and a patient tongue.
Reading the novella is like a retreat into the wilderness, a moment to appreciate beauty and meditate with one’s own thoughts and in close fellowship with a few. Chambers writes it with a simplicity and bright joy of words that matches the characters and premise. All of which enliven the novella into a page-turner without the need for extensive, complex plotting.
When visiting my local bookshop the other day, I noticed A Psalm for the Wild-Built featured on a corner cap as a staff recommendation. Notably, it may have been the only book there without an accompanying handwritten, signed note explaining the choice. Considering this, though, I realized the cover did all the speaking required. The art, title, font, and blurb from Martha Wells says it all, with a sparse charm to match the novella’s core.
Just writing this makes me regret that I didn’t request an ARC of A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. I’ll have to channel the patience and peace of Monk and Robot to calmly await July 13th when I can pick this up in the store now. If you haven’t started the series yet, this still gives you plenty of time to read a copy of A Psalm for the Wild-Built before the sequel’s release. Just don’t forget to collect some leaves of your favorite tea and to set a pot to boil.