In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard
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 Yên is sold to Vu Côn, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Côn’s amusement.
But Vu Côn, it turns out, has a use for Yên: she needs a scholar to tutor her two unruly children. She takes Yên back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death. Vu Côn seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yên 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, Yên will have to decide where her own happiness lies—and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Côn’s dark, unspeakable secrets…
This review has taken me a while to get to, and I have been putting it off. Not because it is a bad book, rather to the the contrary, I loved this book, which is why it is harder to review. I become an incoherent mess trying to write a review that does it justice.
After a lot of thought, this will be a review that may contain spoilers, however I will do my best to keep them minimal, as this way I can do a better job at the review.
I will start by saying that Aliette has a way with words. I felt so much reading this book. Every word was like poetry, and it radiated beatuy (even for the ugly things in the book, even for the hurt, it was raw and sad but also had a beauty to it). It is almost as if she was a word magician.
Another thing is how easy pronouns and ranks and self defining fits in this world. It just is and that’s it.
And the world is an interesting one, as it is what is left after the Vanishers took it and tried to make it into an image of their own, breaking the rules and taking, all the time. Obviously if you take and take, things slowly sicken or fail and this is the world they live in.
When Aliette signed my book she wrote “a new take on an old tale” and that is the perfect way to describe it. I have a soft spot for Beauty and the Beast retellings, with Robin McKinley winning this one (Bridig Kemmerer comes a close second), but with Vanishers’, it doesn’t compare. It isn’t a retelling as much as it is a new classic in the making.
The cast of characters is relatively small, but they are well formed, even the ones that appear little in the story. Everyone has a purpose, everyone exists for something and they are motivated by their own ideas rather than just for the plot or to make our heroine (or our dragon) do something (this does happen, but not for the sake of).
There is also a lot of focus on filial piety which made me curious to learn more. One of the other things that was interesting was the way Vũ Côn is maternal. How she has adopted this pair of young beings and is their mother. It was interesting to see the way she tries her best to protect them, at the same time as she is trying to help them fend for themselves and learn lessons and deal with consequences, and how this is a very fine line sometimes.
One of my favourite things was that when she makes a mistake (or several), she thinks about it, ponders and then attempts to fix the mistake and not only that but to avoid repeating it in the future. She may not be entirely human, but she’s also a being that learns, that grows, that errs.
Seriously, I devoured this book and at the same time didn’t want it to end because it is so beautiful, so comprehensive for such a relatively small book. It touches on so many things and it leaves you thinking. It also left me with some saudade for things that were (sorry, it is the best word I know to describe it). A melancholic nostalgia but also, some fondness and happiness.
I highly recommend reading this beautiful story.