I received a free e-ARC of In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard directly from the author in return for review consideration; receipt of a free copy has not affected my opinion or the contents of this review. In the Vanishers’ Palace is a queer fantasy novel being self-published, and due to be released in the UK on 16th October 2018.
Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:
In a ruined, devastated world, where the earth is poisoned and beings of nightmares roam the land…
A woman, betrayed, terrified, sold into indenture to pay her village’s debts and struggling to survive in a spirit world.
A dragon, among the last of her kind, cold and aloof but desperately trying to make a difference.
When failed scholar Yên is sold to Vu Côn, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Côn’s amusement.
But Vu Côn, it turns out, has a use for Yên: she needs a scholar to tutor her two unruly children. She takes Yên back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death. Vu Côn seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yên comes to see her kinder and caring side. She finds herself dangerously attracted to the dragon who is her master and jailer. In the end, Yên will have to decide where her own happiness lies—and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Côn’s dark, unspeakable secrets…
I’m a big fan of Aliette de Bodard – both her writing, and her Twitter – so when the call went out for reviewers for her upcoming book, a queer Beauty and the Beast retelling with DRAGONS, I obviously had to put my name forward, and I was delighted to receive a copy. And let me tell you, this book absolutely lived up to my (very high!) expectations.
The world de Bodard has created is completely intriguing and had my attention captured from the first page. As someone who loves the mystery and intrigue of a new world, particularly a post-apocalyptic one, but is often frustrated by a lack of detail, I think de Bodard has struck a great balance here between giving us enough information to understand what’s going on and to feel the world around us, without an exposition overload. It also suits the story that there’s a lot left unknown, and it creates an essential tension between the characters and the world they inhabit.
The main characters –Yên and Vu Côn – are incredibly rich and alive, and the way they develop over the course of the story is lovely. Yên is quiet but possessed of an inner strength; Vu Côn is powerful, and overwhelmed by responsibility. As their lives become entwined, both realise things about themselves and about each other, and about what a relationship between them might be. The way they grow, both individually and together, as the story progresses is really beautiful.
I also loved the twins – Thông and Liên. Although they’re secondary characters, they feel fully realised and their own stories are vital to the plot in a way that I really enjoyed. We also have the fascinating inhabitants of Yên’s village: her mother (loved her!), the children she teaches, and the village Elders. I liked the contrast between Yên’s life in the village, and then in the palace with Vu Côn, and the way it showed her both other possibilities open to her, and also how little she truly knew about the Vanishers.
The use of language – both in terms of the actual writing of the book, and how language forms a part of the plot – is wonderful. I’m always interested in de Bodard’s tweets when she’s looking for English equivalents for Vietnamese words, particularly those which represent the nuances of relationships which are almost entirely lost in English, and I really liked how she’s captured that in this story. There are also lovely moments with characters searching for a suitable pronoun to use to accurately and respectfully characterise their relationship with someone else, which I think highlights how language and society bind themselves together and influence each other.
Gender and language is also important, and it’s refreshing how this is portrayed in the story. An example is Yên noting which pronouns a character uses and then following their lead; super effective, and done without any sensationalism. Language also plays its role in the magic of the world, and it’s woven (sometimes literally) into the fabric of the characters’ lives in a way that I adored. As someone who loves languages and linguistics, there was so much in this book for me to sink my teeth into, and I really, really enjoyed it.
I read this book on the back of a line of disappointing reads, and it was so wonderfully refreshing to read something sharp and brave like this. It feels truly magical, and being transported to this world, terrifying as it was, was enchanting. In the Vanishers’ Palace is easily one of my favourite books of the year, and I sincerely hope that anyone who’s looking for genuinely intelligent, inclusive fantasy will pick it up.
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