Monday, 8 April 2019

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Review: In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

Published: 16th October 2019 | Publisher: JABberwocky Literary Agency | Source: Bought
Aliette de Bodard's Website

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...
From Goodreads.

Book Depository | Wordery | Goodreads

I am a huge fan of retellings, so when I first heard of In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard, a Vietnamese inspired, f/f retelling of Beauty and the Beast, where the beast is a female dragon, my interest was piqued. I was a little wary, though, as it's self-published, and I've not had much luck with self-published novels. However, it was recommended by Natasha Ngan, YA author of Girls of Paper and Fire, which I loved, so I thought I would give it ago. Unfortunately, I really didn't enjoy this novel.

In the Vanishers' Palace is only a retelling of Beauty and the Beast in the loosest sense. There is a girl, there is a beast, and the girl is forced to stay with the beast - and that's where things end. There was no curse that needed to be broken, the dragon is actually a dragon and not a human trapped into dragon form by a curse, there is no need to fall in love because of a curse. They don't even fall in love in this story - it's just desire. I've discussed before how I am not a fan of retellings that don't have the major elements of the original story; it doesn't have to be a straight retelling, but it has to be recognisable as a retelling of the original. But In the Vanishers' Palace, for the most part, wasn't. While it is still technically a retelling, it doesn't feel like one, and I feel kind of cheated.

Then there's the fact that, in my opinion, the world building wasn't developed enough. It's set in a world that has been ruined by the Vanishers. Pollution clouds hang over the world, water is polluted, crops stuggle to grow, and are always filled with grit and insects. People are poor and starving, and dying from the illnesses brought about by the Vanishers. But what are these Vanishers? I have absolutely no idea. I could tell you what they look like, but why were they here? How did they get here? What did they do, other than overpower and control the people for sport, and do genetic experiments on them? How did they break the world? Why did they leave? Where did they go? What are the Constructs they left behind? What do they actually do - what is their purpose - and how do they do it? Who is the Broken World Teacher, and what are the virtues they taught? Outside of Yên's life and her village, what is going on? I don't have a bloody clue. Honestly, I felt lost most of the time, and just decided I had to deal with not understanding and just focus on Yên's story. But it really bothered me that I didn't get this world or what was going on - or went on. I also don't think the magic system - of saying magic words, which physically appear as light, and magic happens - was either explained well enough, or developed enough. A number of times I had to choose to carry on reading despite not understanding.

Along side the world building in general, there was another part of the story I didn't understand, but I think this is more me than the story. People have two parts of themselves, âm and duong - like yin and yang, two halves of a whole that need to be in balance to be well. When they are out of balance, you become unwell. This was easy enough to grasp, but what âm and duong actually are, I didn't quite understand - the moon part and the sun part... I just don't understand what that means. Doing some research, this comes from actual Vietnamese culture, but it becomes a part of the fantasy side of this story. I can't explain further without spoiling the story, but it matters, in quite a big way. And not understanding this, plus not really getting the magic system and, therefore, how people are healed, meant there were a lot of moments where I was clueless. But at the same time, healing - which is a huge part of the story; Yên's mother is a healer, Vu Con is a healer, so, so many people are so ill they're on the brink of death - was never on page, so we never really got to see what actually happened, anyway.

And now the romance. As I said already, nobody fell in love in this story, but Yên and Vu Con are sexually attracted to each other. And it made me really uncomfortable. It's f/f side of things absolutely is not a problem. It's the fact that Vu Con is a dragon. Even when in human form, Vu Con's skin is cold and slimy wet, all over, and Yên couldn't seem to get enough of it. But, for me, I really didn't like it. It made me feel ill every time they kissed and touched. There's one point where Vu Con is hovering over Yên, and her cold slime drips onto Yên's skin, and mate, I just couldn't deal with it. On top of this, the first time they kiss, Vu Con is in dragon form, and when they have sex, she's also in dragon form. The sex itself is off page, but the lead up isn't, and while I know dragons aren't real, even so, Vu Con is a completely different species, she's not human. It really gave me the heebie-jeebies. It just made me quite uncomfortable.

Other smaller things that I didn't like; the world "vertiginous" is repeated more times than I can count, and it got so annoying. The palace itself was really difficult to picture, because it's impossible, like art by M. C. Escher, and I just couldn't imagine it. Yên is given to Vu Con as payment for Vu Con healing a dying patient, and she wants her to teach her children the Broken World Teacher's virtues, but we never actually see any of those lessons. In the great scheme of things, Yên and Vu Con spent very little time actually in each other's company. I just didn't really get the point of the story, overall.

One thing that was pretty awesome was the inclusion of non-binary people, and language around pronouns. Although no labels are used in the book, Thong, one of Vu Con's children; Elder Giang, from Yên's village, and even the Broken World Teacher use gender neutral pronouns. The book is written in English, but the characters speak Viêt, and where in English we only have "I/me/my" to refer to yourself or your belongings, Viêt has more, and they're gendered. So when introducing yourself to someone - like Thong saying, "I'm Thong" - you're able to tell someone how you identify in regards to gender by the pronoun you use; Thong used a gender neutral one, so from that point onwards, Yên knows to refer to Thong using "they/them" pronouns. This is all explained, which may sound clunky giving that you're reading English, but they're not speaking it, but it actually works really well.

But, unfortunately, overall, In the Vanishers' Palace really wasn't for me. But there have been quite a number of people who loved it, so do read some other reviews before deciding whether or not to read it.

You may also like:

The Beast's Heart Leife Shallcross A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Over to you graphic

What are your favourite Beauty and the Beast retellings? Or LGBTQ* retellings? What do you think of retellings that reimagine the gender of the characters? Have you read In the Vanishers' Palace? What did you think? Let me know all in the comments!

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