This is going to be such a fun review to write 🙂 OF DRAGONS, FEASTS AND MURDERS is Aliette de Bodard’s latest addition to her Dominion of the Fallen universe and it contains everything I’ve come to love about her writing. Murder. Intrigue. Much stabbing. And that probably tells you all you need to know about how much I loved this book, but I do have a bit more to say.
Thuan, a bookish dragon prince who relies on wits and diplomacy and Asmodeus, his stabby fallen angel murder bird husband return home for Lunar New Year and are quickly caught up trying to solve a mysterious killing in their own unique ways, while trying (and failing) not to fall foul of the strict rules and customs of a Vietnamese-inspired underwater dragon court. I mean that just ticks so many of my boxes I practically screeched with delight when the book appeared on my Kindle. I think Aliette de Bodard just crafts such an incredibly well-constructed fantastical world and society, replete with its own rigid social structures and customs, with characters who are both shaped by their world and also butt their heads up against it. I’m coming to realise more and more what makes great fiction, and it’s characters who are products of their world but who also react to it and often against it to create tension and dramatic conflict. Fonda Lee’s The Green Bone Saga is another fantastic example of this and, while that style of storytelling is very different to Aliette de Bodard’s books, both authors share that same ability to craft incredibly well-rounded characters who aren’t simply outsiders conceived in a vacuum and dropped into a fictional setting, but actually feel like people truly steeped in the culture and practises of the settings they inhabit.
One of my favourite things about this book is how it highlights the use of language to denote things like uncertainty and social status. I’m not familiar with the Vietnamese language, so this may be taken directly from the structure of Vietnamese culture and linguistics, but there’s a great scene where Thuan is talking to another character, who uses ‘a peculiar tense, something that wasn’t the future but something a great deal more uncertain’. I’m such a nerd for this kind of stuff and it makes me wish I was more familiar with how language is embedded with abstract concepts like uncertainty. Another great moment comes when Thuan deliberately demeans another character through his subtle use of language by deliberately using ‘a pronoun he was entitled to use, but which emphasised Dang Quang’s vastly inferior status’. This is another skill de Bodard shares with Fonda Lee, who is also fabulous at having her characters use these kinds of social cues to assert social power in her fiction.
I also need to take a moment to talk about the absolute power couple that is Thuan and Asmodeus, ’cause these two guys are just instant faves. Bookish dragon prince. Fallen angel murder bird. They’re chalk and cheese, but they couldn’t be more perfect for each other. I haven’t actually read the Dominion of the Fallen novels so it felt like I missed out on some of the inside jokes and history they share but even so, these two have such a blazing chemistry that’s just an absolute joy to watch unfold in all its chaotic triumph. Thuan isn’t too happy about the prospect of having to solve a murder, but Asmodeus is simply thrilled about it and that dichotomy is dramatic, full of tension and also incredibly funny to watch. Thuan’s description of his lover Asmo in the book sums up his character perfectly: “I get it. He’s aggressive and he threatened you and he’s generally very, very unpleasant. But he’s also very difficult to shake off when it comes to the well being of his people”. And that’s Asmodeus. A bit of a dick, but also deep down still very caring. As much as he might not want to admit it. After reading OF DRAGONS, FEASTS AND MURDERS I’m feeling very excited about finally cracking open the trilogy novels and discovering how these two hooked up.
As a final aside, reading this was the first time I became consciously aware of the existence of the ‘fantasy of manners’ subgenre. I mean, clearly I’ve read stuff that falls under this umbrella before (including other Aliette de Bodard books of course), but oh boy am I excited by the prospect of specifically searching out more of these kinds of stories. I did a little research and fantasy of manners stories are basically described as stories where the protagonists aren’t pitted against fierce monsters or marauding armies, but against their neighbours and peers. The action takes place within an often hierarchical society, rather than being directed against an external foe and, while duels may be fought, the chief weapons are wit and intrigue. That’s exactly what OF DRAGONS FEASTS AND MURDERS delivers, and all with that signature de Bodard flair.
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