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Hope in the ruins November 3, 2018

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, reviews.
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A dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast where both characters are female, the cultural setting is Vietnamese, and the Beast is a dragon: there is nothing about that sentence I don’t like. As you can imagine, therefore, I was awaiting Aliette de Bodard’s latest novella, In the Vanishers’ Palace, with great anticipation. It was definitely worth the wait! Her Beauty analogue is Yên, a failed scholar eking out a precarious existence helping her mother with her medical work in a community that despises them. An attempt to heal one of her friends of sickness has unintended consequences, and results in Yên being given to a dragon, Vu Côn, in indenture. Yên fears abuse and death at the dragon’s hands, but from this unpromising start, love, hope, and healing blossom. Like the fairytale original, In the Vanishers’ Palace is a love story between captor and captive — and it certainly doesn’t shy away from this element — but it takes that love story in intriguing and unexpected directions. Instead of being a lonely and cruel recluse, Vu Côn is a worried and overworked mother, and Yên becomes tutor to her two children. And instead of Yên’s love making her monstrous lover human, Vu Côn’s dragon identity is part of the appeal, and she remains a dragon to the end.

Cover - In the Vanishers' Palace

In the Vanishers’ Palace takes place in a world reeling from rapacious colonialism. The eponymous Vanishers are no longer present, but the effects of their greed had reverberations felt long after their departure, from the depletion and degradation of food sources to the supernatural threats that haunt the margins of the story. Rồng, or dragon spirits in Vietnamese folklore, are benevolent, but Vu Côn, responsible for killing people made ill by the plagues left behind by the Vanishers, has become something to be feared. And, as de Bodard notes, the Vanishers’ cruellest act of devastation is to the colonised people themselves, whose very values and sense of self have been transformed (and not for the better), leaving them unmoored and ill-equipped to deal with the difficulties they face.

De Bodard opted to self-publish this work, and has stated at several points that this was a conscious decision in order to avoid any painful compromises in terms of plot, characterisation and representation. While the resulting work is excellent, it’s a pretty damning indictment of the current SFF publishing scene if the only way to end up with a story where queer relationships are normative, trans and/or nonbinary people are present and visible, and where colonised people are allowed to express fury and rage at their predicament without editorial pushback is to self-publish. It may be that this self-publishing choice was merely a precautionary measure, but if not, I sincerely hope that the quality and reception of In the Vanishers’ Palace makes things easier for other authors hoping to (self- or traditionally) publish work in its vein.

This being an Aliette de Bodard story, there are all the familiar and fabulous features that I’ve come to expect in her work: loving and mouth-watering descriptions of food and cooking, a refusal to flinch away from the devastating effects of empire and colonialism, and an intricate exploration of the different ways survival can look. This last is crucial, and resonates deeply with me. De Bodard rejects an individualistic interpretation of heroism, where a lone, special individual bravely solves the world’s problems alone. Instead, courage in her writing is all about (inter)dependence and community building — the little acts that forge and strengthen networks, reinforce familial and non-familial bonds, and the way that sometimes merely surviving and helping others survive is its own victory. De Bodard’s writing is at its exquisite best when it’s focused on hope in the ruins, and this shines through most beautifully in In the Vanishers’ Palace.

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1. We are not things | Geata Póeg na Déanainn - November 17, 2018

[…] romance between captive and captor. I’m not averse to this kind of story (see, for example, my recent review of Aliette de Bodard’s Beauty and the Beast retelling, In the Vanishers’ Palace), but […]


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