Review: OF DRAGONS, FEASTS AND MURDERS by Aliette de Bodard

Book Reviews

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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Weekly Reading Update 17/06/2020

Updates

Welcome to Wednesday bookwyrms. I didn’t have a weekly update last week cos I’d been moving house, so honestly just hadn’t got much reading done. I’m on a novella-reading binge at the moment though and can I just say how happy I am that the novella is is making a comeback. Especially in genre fiction, and fantasy specifically, that has long been associated with the ‘doorstopper’ novel. I Love a good thousand-pager as much as anyone, but there’s something beautiful and incredibly skilful about the craft of a good novella, where tonnes of character and world building can be packed into such a small package. Here’s a selection of the novellas I’ve got on my radar at the mo.



Recently Finished: THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
I’m on a bit of a P. Djèlí Clark kick at the moment. After reading his short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo I thought I potentially had a new favourite author on my hands. So I quickly moved on to his Haitian sky pirate novella The Black God’s Drums and thought “Yep, this guy is incredible” and after THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 I can confidently say P. Djèlí Clark is one of the smartest, most engaging authors out there right now and is undoubtedly a master of the novella. This story takes place in the same universe as A Dead Djinn in Cairo and follows Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr as he tries to solve the mystery of the haunting of a tram car, along the way encountering the Egyptian suffragette movement and becoming acquainted with a group of magic-wielding women deeply knowledgeable about the folklore of multicultural Cairo.

Currently Reading: ON A RED STATION, DRIFTING by Aliette De Bodard
I’ve missed science fiction. Even though Wyrd & Wonder ended a few weeks ago I’ve still been reading mostly fantasy and non-fiction, and my beloved sci-fi remains abandoned by the wayside. I technically haven’t started this yet as I’ve literally just closed the final pages of Tram Car 015 ten minutes ago, but thought it was about time I sated my science fiction craving. ON A RED STATION, DRIFTING is the first novella in Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya Universe, which also incldudes The Citadel of Weeping Pearls and The Tea Master and the Detective, the latter of which I’ve already read and loved. ON A RED STATION, DRIFTING is the story of Station Mistress Quyen and Honoured Ancestress, an AI born of a human womb, as they struggle to keep their loved ones safe amidst a brewing war in the Dai Vet Empire.

Next Read: RING SHOUT by P. Djèlí Clark
No surprise by now that I’ll be reading another P. Djèlí Clark novella next. RING SHOUT sounds incredible, and is particularly pertinent given the mass uprising against racist violence in the US right now. It sets up D. W. Griffith (a real life figure who directed a vile, racist film called The Birth of a Nation in 1915) as a sorceror whose film was a spell that drew from the darkest thoughts and wishes at the heart of American society. Luckily, Maryse Boudreaux has a magic sword. When she’s not running bootleg whiskey through Prohibition Georgia, she’s fighting monsters she calls “Ku Kluxes.” She’s damn good at it too, but to confront this ongoing evil she must journey between worlds to face nightmares made flesh – and her own demons. Together with a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter, Maryse sets out to save a world from the hate that would consume it. Sounds absolutely amazing.


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Review: IN THE VANISHERS’ PALACE by Aliette de Bodard

Book Reviews

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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