In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard. ★★★★
I’ve been telling everyone I know about In the Vanishers’ Palace, a f/f retelling of “Beauty and the Beast”… with dragons! So get ready for a really excited review.
Yên is a failed scholar in a harsh world. She and her mother are barely accepted in their village community for her mother’s skills as a healer, but Yên knows their situation is precarious and that they are likely to someday be cast out or killed. When Yên’s mother summons the dragon Vu Côn to heal the daughter of a village leader, Vu Côn demands a life in payment. The village chooses Yên, and she’s sent to Vu Côn’s home in the labyrinthine palace left behind by the rulers of the world. Yên thinks she will die, but she soon finds that Vu Côn has another use for her: Vu Côn is the mother of two, and she needs a tutor for her unruly children.
First of all, In the Vanishers’ Palace is beautifully written. Aliette de Bodard’s prose is always on point. If you want evidence, just read one of her short stories — she’s got a multitude of fabulous tales floating around the internet.
Similarly, de Bodard never fails to create breathtaking and complex worlds. In particular, I love how In the Vanishers’ Palace mixes science fiction and fantasy elements together. Magic and aliens. What a delightful combination! The aliens in question invaded the world and unleashed havoc, creating genetically engineered viruses that run rampant through the population. For unknown reasons, they left the world behind, but the world is a shattered ruin in their wake. In the Vanishers’ Palace is an excellent stand-alone story, but the world de Bodard has created is the best sort: the type that seems to stretch beyond the limits of the page. Oh, and it’s worth noting that this world doesn’t include homophobia or transphobia and that nonbinary genders are completely accepted.
The narration switches between Yên and Vu Côn, and I enjoyed both of them as protagonists. I will admit that I had moments where I questioned what Vu Côn saw in Yên; it felt like most of their interactions were very brief. Relatedly, I sometimes felt like the romance was moving too fast, although in the end, I was okay with how it developed. Still, more emphasis on character interactions couldn’t have hurt. I also would have liked to see more of Yên tutoring the twins (who are delightful!).
The original “Beauty and the Beast” tale obviously has some consent issues, and de Bodard brings those to the forefront here. Motherhood is also a huge theme of In the Vanishers’ Palace, both because Vu Côn is a mother and because of Yên’s relationship with her own mother. In general, In the Vanishers’ Palace takes the premise of the old fairy tale and recenters it around women as well as placing it in a Vietnamese cultural context.
I loved In the Vanishers’ Palace, and I know I’ll be recommending it going forward.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.