I've been a fan of Aliette de Bodard's work ever since I read Servant of the Underworld, the first book in her Aztec-noir fantasy series, so when she announced on Twitter that she was doing a Beauty and the Beast retelling for adults with some interesting twists, I was all for it and ordered a copy that day. What I got was In the Vanishers' Palace, a gorgeous, sapphic eastern fairy tale that has a ton of warmth and heart.
A New Dystopia
In the Vanishers' Palace is set in a future that has been destroyed by mysterious aliens called the Vanishers. They came, they messed with things and they disappeared, leaving disease and horrifying machines in their wake. Yên, a failed scholar, lives in a little village ruled over by cruel Elders, who weigh people by their usefulness and little else. Her mother, the village healer, is tasked with saving one of their children from one of the many diseases running rampant in their world. Desperate, she summons a dragon to work her magic and save the girl. But of course, this magic comes with a price.
The Beast and the Beauty
The dragon agrees to accept Yên's life in exchange for saving another, though she sneers at the village elders' cruelty, and soon we find the young scholar in the dragon's palace, a massive and confusing building that once housed the Vanishers, who had enslaved the dragon and other gods and mythical figures. The dragon's name is Vu Con and she asks her new "guest" to educate her children, serious Thông and the precocious Liên. She also warns that the palace is not a safe place, presenting unending, mysterious dangers.
Thus charged, Yên does what she can. Unlike previous versions of this fairy tale, Vanisher's Palace follows the beast almost as much as the beauty. We learn a lot about Vu Con and her heartbreaking past, and what she's doing now to make things right. She's a dragon, but she's not a two-dimensional monster. She's a mother, she's a healer and she's dealing with a lot of complicated issues with surprising kindness, though she is incredibly pragmatic. I found her an incredibly deep and interesting character. De Bodard does a great job in getting the reader to sympathize, despite or because of the horrific nature of the world and the situation she builds around her characters.
A Relationship in the Face of Power
One of the best parts of this book is the way de Bodard handles the power imbalance between Vu Con and Yên. She doesn't completely ignore the fact that Yên is at the mercy of the dragon like other tellings of this story does and both women acknowledge it. This is actually a big part of Vu Con's inner conflict, which is massively refreshing in a world where we are seeing a lot of the opposite in the headlines. Their attraction is immediate, but neither make a move until it really feels right and healthy to do so. The whole thing was still incredibly engaging and moving, without being as problematic as the more traditional, Stockholm syndrome-y versions.
De Bodard has been pretty outspoken about her opinion on dead mothers in fantasy and sci-fi books. She posted a pretty good thread about it on twitter and wrote a well thought-out blog post about it here. Her point is, that despite magic or massive leaps in technology, fiction today, and in some cases, classical fiction, contains a lot of dead moms for various (lame) reasons.
In the Vanisher's Palace is a bit of an answer to that because it contains two strong moms with their own complex issues and their own characters. First, we meet Yen's mom, the village healer having to make tough decisions. She knows her daughter longs for (and needs) a life beyond the village, but doesn't want that for herself. She knows her place is there, healing those who fall ill. And she doesn't die before the starts, like Belle's mom (wait, who? When is she even mentioned, Disney?) and she doesn't get fridged either, though her precarious situation in life does spur a number of Yen's decisions and desires.
Vu Con is also a mother, having two teenagers waiting for her at home. She faces completely different problems than Yen's mother, namely how to get her children ready to survive in a world that, in her experience, can be dangerous and cruel without warning. It's obvious she wants to protect her children, but also seems to understand that to do this, she's going to have to let them learn to protect themselves. Her relationship with her children is deep and complicated, but it isn't all she's got going on. She too, in her own way, is a healer and wants to do what she can to help those who find their way to her.
De Bodard's treatment of mothers and motherhood is so fun and fulfilling. I really hope it encourages more fiction like this in the future.
A Small Warning, Timid Reader
Figure I might as well point out right now that this book might not be for those who like a super easy read, or straight romance. There are some really weird aspects (and, heck physical dimensions) to this story. This is not the cartoon from 1995. It's charming, but de Bodard doesn't hold your hand though the whole thing. Much is left to the reader's interpretation, which is probably going to bother some people. Occasionally, the prose can be kind of vague, but I didn't really have a problem with it. Overall, the storytelling is clean and well-paced.
Another thing that's going to probably bother people is that some characters in this book are gender fluid. This mostly just means that their pronouns are non-gender specific. This really isn't confusing in any way and is handled wonderfully by de Bodard.
And of course, as I've been saying from the beginning, both members of this love story are women. In fact, almost the entire cast of this story is not male, so if that's going to bother you, don't bother me or the author about it, and find something else to read.
In short, I really enjoyed In the Vanishers' Palace for a number of reasons and highly recommend it.
What's it Like?
Take Beauty and the Beast, and then add a healthy helping of aliens, post-apocalyptic techno-grunge, magic and Vietnamese mythology.
Bechdel Test: Pass