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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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Sisters, you can still stand tall September 1, 2017

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, meta, reviews.
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I’m the oldest of five sisters, so I’m always on the lookout for stories that reflect my own experience of sisterhood: stories about groups of girls whose personalities may be very different, but whose shared childhood engenders a closeness and a strong sense of mutual support, even if they don’t always understand one another. Unfortunately, the majority of the stories I’ve encountered that explore sibling relationships seem to prioritise brothers (or brothers and sisters), or, if they focus on sisters, emphasise the antagonistic elements of their relationship, as if unwilling to admit that sisters can be supportive of and close to each other. The three books I’m reviewing today, however, were exactly what I wanted: stories with sisters (or, in one case, two girls who were like sisters in every way but blood) front and centre, and stories where sisters were sources of support and strength to each other.

Cover-Five Daughters of the Moon

Leena Likitalo’s novel, The Five Daughters of the Moon is the first in a fantasy duology reimagining the events leading up to the Russian revolution, from the perspective of five sisters roughly analogous with the Romanov princesses. This being a fantasy retelling, however, there are various interesting twists to historical events: some of the sisters have supernatural abilities, others are caught up in the revolutionary movement sweeping their country, and theirs is a matriarchal monarchy ruled by their mother, who is ‘married’ to the moon (a deity in their religion) and takes various lovers to be the earthly fathers of her children. Some of these elements work better than others, and where the story is weakest, to my mind, is in its interpretation of the causes of unrest and revolution, and in its depiction of a Rasputin-like figure (fiendish, terrifying, creator of supernatural automata to control the royal sisters, and secretly masterminding the revolution for his own gain). I’ve always been uneasy with the way some writers seem to interpret revolutions as inherently unjust, unnecessary, and the fault of ignorant people jealous of the wealth and power of their superiors and being manipulated into violent unrest by villains keen to create chaos in order to advance their own interests. It’s why I gave up on The Legend of Korra after one season. Unfortunately, Likitalo takes this line with the revolution brewing in The Five Daughters of the Moon.

The book is stronger in its depiction of the relationship between the five sisters: Celestia, heir to the throne and burdened by the weight of expectation and responsibility, Elise, soft-hearted and burning with revolutionary fevour, Sibilia, stuck in the middle and uncomfortably suspended between childhood and adulthood and impatient with this status, Merile, who cares more for animals than people, and the fey, fragile Alina. They’ve all led a sheltered existence, and over the course of the book their eyes are opened, and they learn to draw strength and courage from each other. It will be interesting to see how things conclude in the second book, and despite my dissatisfaction with Likitalo’s interpretation of revolution, her exploration of the relationships between the five sisters is enough to keep me reading.

Cover-Jewel Lapidary

Fran Wilde’s novella, The Jewel and Her Lapidary, takes place in a land ruled by Jewels — those who wear gemstones imbued with great power — and whose rule is upheld by Lapidaries, who possess the ability to harness the power of the gemstones. The relationship between a Jewel and their Lapidary is thus deeply symbiotic, with the power firmly in the hands of the Lapidary. Those who can harness the gemstones have the ability to reshape the land — but also control the minds and realities of others, and the survival of their realm thus depends on their honesty and good intentions. Unfortunately, the land’s vast wealth, and its pacifism make it a tempting target, and the young Jewel Lin and her Lapidary Sima find themselves singlehandedly defending their kingdom against an invasion. Both had considered themselves to be weak, but their devotion to one another and strong sense of responsibility make them equal to the challenge of ensuring their people’s survival. While the pair are not sisters in the strictest sense, the rules of magic in the story have meant that they were raised together with fierce devotion, and are sisters in all but name. It is, in some ways, a profoundly unequal relationship: Sima has all the magical power, and her ability to manipulate the gems which Lin wears gives her a power of life and death over Lin, while at the same time the rules of their society require a Lapidary’s priority to be the safety and survival of their Jewel. The profundity of the bond which this strange relationship engenders is the key to the survival of their people, and Wilde tells a deeply poignant story in which compassion, quick thinking, and the ability to appear insignificant and weak save the day, rather than violence or even raw magical power. This was a story that left me wanting more, so I was very happy with the news that Wilde will be writing more stories in this universe in the future.

Cover-Buried Heart

Like Wilde, Kate Elliott celebrates the bonds between female characters and the kinds of power that bloom in unexpected places, and like Likitalo her book Buried Heart, the third in a YA trilogy, is concerned with revolution. Unlike Likitalo, Elliott gives nuanced voice to the legitimate cause of her revolutionaries, the people of Efua who in this book rise to overthrow their oppressive Saroese colonists. This final book contains all the best elements of the trilogy as a whole (and indeed of Elliott’s entire corpus): sweeping, epic drama of a society on the brink of profound transformation, a sincere engagement with the dehumanising effect of colonialism on both the oppressors and the oppressed, comprehensive worldbuilding that considers how a society would function on both a macro and a micro level, and the prioritising of relationships between girls and women. The latter is an utter delight, and I enjoyed in particular the depiction of Jessamy, the narrator, her sisters, and her mother Kiya, because it allowed for the exploration of so many different types of power. Jessamy herself is active in a way that is often represented: physically courageous, quick-tempered, and quick to assume positions of leadership. However, by centring so many other girls and women, Elliott doesn’t allow this to be the only kind of power and authority represented in the book. Jessamy’s disabled sister Maraya has a sharp, lawyerly mind, and is skilled at research, wading through dense documents to get to the heart of them in a way that will advance her cause. Her sister Amaya is skilled at acting, and is able to use this in order to disarm the powerful, until they dismiss her as insignificant, which is very useful in spying and gathering information. But the character who meant the most to me was Jessamy’s brilliant mother Kiya, who was given a prominence and authority rarely seen in portrayals of mothers in YA literature. Kiya’s strength comes from her identity as a mother, and all the skills we later see her deploying are those she honed as a parent: care for others, the ability to juggle multiple tasks while also looking ahead to the near and distant future, a strong sense others and their needs and motives, and the ability to console and inspire. It is because of, and not in spite of, these strengths that she becomes the leader of the revolution sweeping Efua, and it was profoundly moving to me to see a character like Kiya honoured, lauded and respected in this way. Elliott is far too sensible a writer to imply that revolutions are won or lost on the basis of their leadership alone — and indeed she devotes a great deal of time to the different groups of people who make common cause in order to fight against their oppressors. However, as unrest builds and the chance to right the wrongs that have plagued Efua since the arrival of the Saroese approaches, the revolution is in safe hands with Kiya at its head.