IN THE VANISHERS’ PALACE is an f/f retelling of Beauty and the Beast, except ‘beauty’ is a failed village scholar, and ‘the beast’ is a shape-shifting dragon. That’s it. That’s the review. Presumably it’s all anyone needs to know in order to instantly buy this book? It was for me at least, but if you do need a bit more of a nudge, I’m happy to expand.
Yên is a village scholar in a world left desolate and broken in the wake of the vanishers’ departure. At least she wants to be a scholar, but remains trapped in her village in the role of ‘useless’ tutor to the local children, only tolerated by the village elders because of her mother’s role as a healer. Yên’s life is thrown into question when the elders offer her to a dragon named Vu Côn, in return for Vu Côn’s superior healing magic. Yên is spirited away to Vu Côn’s palace where, instead of being brutally murdered, the embers of a troubled romantic relationship begin to ignite…
This a short book with a lot packed into it. There’s solid world-building that is never over-written; the eponymous vanishers are actually never fully explained and I liked that; they’re gone from this world, they’re a remnant of its past and this isn’t their story. Instead we experience the desolation these powerful, despotic beings left behind and Aliette gives the reader just enough information to tell the story she wants to tell.
It isn’t so much a retelling of The Beauty and the Beast story either; rather, it takes the premise of that tale and weaves it into something much more compelling and challenging. As much as I enjoy that original story, there’s always the elephant in the corner of the room, that unhealthy power imbalance in the relationship between captor and captive that never gets addressed. Aliette tackles that elephant to the god damn ground and drags it centre stage. Much of this story is about healing, whether that be the literal healing of illness, the healing of a shattered world or the difficult healing of a toxic relationship turned healthy. The character development is excellent. This is Yên and Vu Côn’s story, it’s their behaviour and the decisions they make that drive this story forward and I was always compelled by the development of their relationship.
But what I love most about Aliette de Bodard is her evocative writing. Her effortless descriptions of settings and environments engage my senses in a way few other writers do. Reading this book I could almost smell the steam rising from cooked rice, feel the cold grip of fear in my chest when Vu Côn gets angry and sense the dizzying onset of vertigo as Yên tried to comprehend the impossible dimensions and geometry of the palace. Writing like this is a difficult thing to pull off without coming across as a pretentious bore and still succeeding in driving an engaging story forward, but Aliette excels at it.
This is a book for anyone who loves character-driven fantasy, classic re-tellings or just really good writing. It’s the second novella I’ve read by Aliette de Bodard (the first being The Tea Master and the Detective, her gender-swapped re-imagining of Holmes and Watson in space) and I’ll definitely be reading everything else she’s written.
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