Friday 23 February 2024

In the Vanishers’ Palace, by Aliette de Bodard (JABberwocky Literary Agency) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in TQF65 (December 2019).

Some time ago, the world was conquered and enslaved by beings who subsequently left, vanished, and broke the world. Humans were left to survive as best they could among the wreckage and abandoned artefacts. Resources are scarce, plagues are rife, and life in Yên’s village is extremely difficult, the village elders always looking for an excuse to reduce the number of mouths to feed. Would-be scholar Yên is not regarded as terribly useful, but her mother is a healer, and knows a few words of power. When Head Phuoc’s daughter is seriously unwell, and all else fails, and exile is the price of failure, Yên’s mother calls on a dragon spirit to help. Yên is offered as the price.

It wasn’t just humans that were enslaved and damaged by the vanishers: the myths and legends of Earth were killed or severely traumatised too. Spirited away to the dragon’s palace, Yên expects to be eaten, but that’s not what the dragon is after, and the relationship they end up with is not what either of them was expecting. What we then get is a romance between a nice girl and a powerful, prideful grump in the tradition of Hades and Persephone, Beauty and the Beast, Howl’s Moving Castle and more recently Uprooted. But it also follows the traditional pattern of romantic comedies: the meet cute, the initial dislike, the slow growing-to-like each other, the seemingly insurmountable relationship obstacle, and so on.

It’s weird (the palace itself is a barely-controlled artefact of the vanishers and life there becomes very strange), romantic (Yên and the dragon’s relationship is passionate, intense and believable, right from the first moment they meet) and scrupulously ethical (the dragon being quite aware that a coerced relationship would be meaningless). And I’ve not mentioned some of the more interesting elements of the book because I think the book is better for them coming as a surprise. I very much recommend it. Stephen Theaker ****

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