In The Vanisher's Palace by Aliette de Bodard

I am grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this novella in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Jabberwocky Literary Agency

Published - Out Now

Price - £4.99 kindle eBook

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 Yen is sold to Vu Con, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Con’s amusement. But Vu Con, it turns out, has a use for Yen: she needs a scholar to tutor her unruly children. She takes Yen back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death.

Vu Con seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yen 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, Yen will have to decide where her own happiness lies and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Con’s dark unspeakable secret.

We often like to call a fairy story a timeless classic; the tales of a long time ago can be reshaped and re-told to suit today’s times and perspectives but we tend to always set the story in the past of a mysterious land where magic is real.  Aliette de Bodard however has taken a different approach of transplanting the story of Beauty and the Beast to a very futuristic world where the science can easily appear to be magic; despite this change of scene it is still an enticing story with some important points about today’s world.

The story begins in a land where the all-powerful rulers could change matter, bodies and energy at by the power of words (or more accurately spells). But at some point these mysterious people moved on from the world (and hence are known as the Vanishers); not everyone on the world was a Vanisher and there are small settlements across the world who are having to live in a chaotic world where the powers are now uncontrolled; harvests are patchy, diseases are rampant and ever mutating; life for those on the edges of society is hard. If you cannot be of use to your village you may find yourself stripped to your molecular components. In Yen’s village her mother the healer desperate to save the life of an important person in the village summons one of the most powerful remaining forces in the world Vu Con an entity that can be both a dragon or appear human. Vu Con agrees to assist but only in exchange for another life and this turns out to be Yen herself. Vu Con is known for having a bloodthirsty streak, so Yen expects her trip to Vu Con’s realm to be short and painful.   But Yen is about to get a much better view of what led to the world she knows being created and her presence will make Vu Con start to look at the humans in the world with new eyes.

Into this we have in the lead roles two very intelligent women working out their relationship. Yen wants more than village life, she seeks knowledge and a purpose but is hurt as she was forced into a form of servitude by her own family. Vu Con is someone who changes form at will (or under great emotional turmoil) a holder of the Vanisher’s secrets her powers can heal, or she may decide to kill those she deems a danger to the rest of the world. Hence finding Vu Con has two children both equally powerful but not yet fully emotionally mature enough to venture into the rest of the world adds a surprising dimension to the almost demonic tyrant we were led to suspect she was. While both characetrs want something from the other - a continued existence and to show the children that power should be used responsibly and while there is tension because of their roles of ruler and servant there is also an undeniable attraction between these two women that will make them question their approach as to how to live in this world. A key point in this is that Vu Con needs to learn to recognise Yen is not an obsession or a servant but ultimately someone she needs to learn to have a consensual relationship based on trust with. It’s so refreshing to see a mainstream fantasy tale that makes a growing relationship between its two female leads both incredibly sensual, normal  and true to the nature of the characters.

One of the most enjoyable parts of this novella is we are in a very different world to the standard medieval European village setting western readers are so used to. The world outside Vu Con’s world is analogous to south east Asian culture but also one that is verging towards a dystopian apocalypse while Vu Con’s realm is a mysterious fractal every changing dimension with rooms that lead anywhere and shift contents and structure at any time its owner requests. These two extremes highlight both what the Vanishers were capable of at their best but also a reminder that they seemed to be very absent landlords. It is a very thoughtful comment about the dangers of very advanced powers deciding to own and toy with people with colonisation for their own purposes but then leaving those people to then deal with the consequences of that invasion.

The language of the entire tale echoes the world it’s gorgeously colourful, powerful and the whole tale has a fluidity and energy that matches the flowing and ever-changing world that Yen finds herself in.  There is a risk that because we all know the original story (or to eb more honest its most com mon 21st century interpretation) that the story will lack any surprises, but I think the final third of the novel provides new threats and revelations that make this story its own delight. That’s a voyage I really think any reader who loves a modern look at the classics should take.  I definitely think de Bodard is one of the most talented storytellers we have around now, and this is a fine addition to her work.