In the Vanishers’ Palace, by Aliette de Bodard

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 16, 2018

Summary: 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…

Review: When I first heard this novella described as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, only with two women, and also with a heaping spoonful of Vietnamese mythology, I was sold. Over the past while, I’ve learned that I really enjoy fairy tale retellings, and long-time friends likely already know that I love positive LGBTQA+ representation in media, so I was on board with what de Bodard had to offer here.

In the Vanishers’ Palace tells the story of Yên, who is given by her village to the dragon Vu Côn, as payment for Vu Côn’s healing magics. She expects to be killed, but instead of given the task of educating Vu Côn’s children, Thông and Liên. Which doesn’t seem like such a terrible thing, and definitely a lot worse than her expected demise, but living gives Yên time and opportunity to reflect on her feelings for Vu Côn. Feeling which the dragon reciprocates. But disaster looms, and everything threatens to fall apart when secrets are dragged into the light and things are revealed to not be all they seem.

I love the world in this story, inasmuch as anyone can love a ruined post-apocalyptic world. The reader is plopped down in the middle of it and expected to pick up things along the way, which honestly, is the best way of doing things. No, “Long ago, the Vanishers broke the world,” here. It makes for a bit of confusion in the early pages, but it’s a quick adjustment. Yên’s world is one of rot and destruction, of fear and ruin and scarcity, where gene-twisting diseases run rampant and danger lurks beyond the city limits. And the characters are all very much products of their world, shaped by the way life and society had to adapt and move and survive once the old ways were gone.

I’ll say here that one of the things that appealed to me about the world in which In the Vanishers’ Palace takes place is the way it doesn’t just feel like a world of thin metaphor for current problems in North America. I’ve read about enough post-apocalyptic worlds over the years to become familiar with common tropes, the general feel of how many writers envision the world after a cataclysm. And this is nothing like most of those worlds. Perhaps it’s because of the Vietnamese cast and cultural influences, which, rather than feeling superficially exotic, come across as breath of fresh air when compared to so many stale cookie-cutter post-apocalyptic worlds encountered elsewhere.

So much of this novella centres on healing and choice. Paraphrasing one of the characters, there’s always a choice. The choices might not be great ones, but there’s always a choice. And with choice comes the need to accept consequences, regardless of intent. Thông and Liên attempt to heal a very sick man without Vu Côn’s knowledge, believing they’ll have success and will have brought a bit of life back to someone and maybe found a new way to heal others… and it goes very badly. Their intentions were good, but the result was bad, and they had to live with and atone for the consequences of their choices. Vu Côn was forced to confront the consequences of her choice to make use of Yên’s scholarship to tutor her children, and her inaction in noting Yên’s illness and attempting to heal her. Yên made mistakes, and learned from them, and let that learning change her, and sometimes things worked out and sometimes they didn’t, but she always had her ideas of what should happen and tried her best to make those ideas a reality.

I loved that about Yên, really: she was determined and headstrong and wanted what she wanted, and she wasn’t about to let circumstance stop her from trying. In that was she was a great counterpart to the more reserved Vu Côn. Interestingly, it was headstrong Yên who was more concerned with traditional duty, and cool Vu Côn who was more of a transgressor, doing things because she felt they needed to be done rather than “the way things were done,” so to speak.

I mentioned healing being a central theme, and in this, I don’t just mean the obvious illnesses that Vu Côn heals (or attempts to heal), though that is part of it. Primarily I think of Thông and Yên. Thông must come to grips with a side of themself that they fear and hate, a side which is also feared and hated by others. There’s good reason for that fear, and a loss of self-control could prove deadly. In reading Thông, I felt they were a character with a deep soul wound, one caused by their nature warring with what they wanted to be. In Yên’s case, she was living with her heart in two different worlds, a self-divided, and in the end that proved to be a very literal thing indeed. They both had deep conflicts that needed to be resolved in order to fully heal.

And this healing doesn’t come about by the end of the novella. It’s not some neat pat ending where every single problems is nicely resolved. Trauma doesn’t go away so easily, and I like that the ending wasn’t some saccharine “happily ever after.” It was about as happy as it could be, all things considered, but it was made very clear that the journey isn’t over for these characters, that they still have work to do and healing to accomplish, but that they’ve started on that path.

There’s so much to enjoy about In the Vanishers’ Palace. Marginalized representation across multiple areas, brilliant writing, characters I loved reading about and sitting on the shoulders of. If you haven’t read any of Aliette de Bodard’s writing before, I consider this a wonderful introduction to her work, an excellent taste of the creativity and skill she brings to the table.

(Received in exchange for review.)

GUEST POST: Reimagining Paris, by Aliette de Bodard

Today, Aliette de Bodard is awesome enough to drop by with a fantastic post about the Paris she wrote for The House of Shattered Wings.

I wrote The House of Shattered Wings partly as a love letter to Paris.

It might seem a little paradoxical, as one of the first things I’ve done with the book is nuke the city: in the novel, the Great Houses War (my alternate equivalent to World War I), was fought not between countries, but between magical factions, and the resulting backlash tore the city apart, destroying the familiar monuments and turning the city into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Among other things, Notre­Dame is a ruin, the Sorbonne University has been burnt down to the ground, and the Grands Magasins are saturated with magical booby-­traps, and you do not go there unless you have a death­-wish.

However, no matter how destroyed, the city is still recognisably Paris; and its geography is still familiar — ­­and so is its society, which I loosely based on the 19th Century and the novels I read as a child. I wanted to a write a fantasy that was set among familiar streets and familiar sights, and would incorporate many of the things I grew up with. Equally, I didn’t want this to be the tourist view of Paris: there’s nothing wrong with this narrative, but I wanted to present something a little different, a city from the point of view of those that live there (or in the case of my characters, survive!).

I drew on a lot of things for the world in the novel: the first is the history of the city and of the French state, which I took and twisted sideways to make this post­-apocalyptic world come alive. The Seine has long been Paris’s sustenance, an important source of commerce and supplies, but also a line of defence: Ile de la Cité and Ile Saint-­Louis, Paris’s two natural islands, are also its historical heart (the city’s motto, Fluctuat Nec Mergitur, “battered by the river but does not sink”, is a clear reference to this). In the world of the novel, the Seine has become corrupted by the spells cast during the Great War: venture too close to it and you run the risk of being dragged underwater by invisible tendrils. Banks are off-­limits, and even bending over the parapet of a bridge can be lethal.

In my universe, several magical factions-­cum-­fortresses called Houses fight each other for influence over Paris. The names of those Houses are easter eggs based on history and geography. The first and foremost House is Silverspires, the major location of the novel. It is of course located on Ile de la Cité, because it was the first House founded, at a time when the city was the island; its name, Silverspires, is a reference to the numerous churches which used to be found on the island before the great renovation of Paris in the 19th Century. Another House, Hawthorn, is located in the Southwest of Paris in Auteuil: during the first half of the 19th century, Auteuil was a verdant village in the countryside, one of the places where the rich had their secondary residences. Accordingly, Hawthorn is famous for its gardens, which it has managed to keep intact (more or less) even in the years after the war.

The 19th Century was a time of unprecedented advances (in the alternate history I describe, those are powered by magic), and of large territorial expansion of the French on other continents. The novel is set sixty years after the Great Houses War: in the wake of the devastation, that century (and especially the Belle Epoque) has become the Golden Age, the halcyon days everyone seeks to remember; but there are also remnants of the colonial empire. Commerce still flows through the port of Marseilles from Asia, and one of the major characters, Philippe, hails from Annam (present­-day Vietnam), while minor ones come from Morocco, Senegal and other French colonies.

Another thing which I used was the geography of the city, and the way it would change in a post­apocalyptic setting. Because the Seine is now impregnable, the Houses which hold islands (Ile de la Cité, Ile Saint-­Louis and the artificial Ile aux Cygnes) now have an advantage over others, as they are harder to storm. Conversely, places like Hawthorn, which are basically countryside, have no natural defences: one of the reasons why Hawthorn and the other Houses are so eager to bring Silverspires down is because of the unfair advantage Silverspires now holds.

Finally, the society I present is drawn from many things: as I said, it is a twisted version of the Belle Epoque, with social mores affected by a devastated setting, but still present. The class system has receded and left in its place a stratification based on who belongs to a great House, and who doesn’t; on who has magic, and who doesn’t; and people make snap judgments based on this. I drew on my classical reading for this, to get both the feel of what it would be like in an upper­-class/bourgeois portion of society (within the Houses), and what being outside this system would entail: the society in the novel is a cross between Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (which vividly portrays both the plight of the oppressed and the obliviousness of the powerful), Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin novels (the adventures of a gentleman-­thief, but more importantly a powerful cross-­section of French society pre-­WWI), and Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo (which, in addition to the revenge plot, has wonderful parties and very vivid politics among the bourgeoisie). All were invaluable for creating the interactions between characters who ranked from heads of Houses to more minor roles like alchemists, bodyguards and servants.

This is the underside of the iceberg, of course: in the novel, which has a fast-­paced, character-­driven noir plot, I seldom had time to pause for history lessons. But there is enough of it there, I hope, to make this strange, unfamiliar and yet utterly recognisable Paris come to life; and to give the reader a whirlwind tour of what might have been, in a slightly sideways City of Light!

Many thanks, Aliette, for writing this post for Bibliotropic! And to everyone who hasn’t yet read The House of Shattered Wings, what are you waiting for?

The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 18, 2015

Summary: A superb murder mystery, on an epic scale, set against the fall out – literally – of a war in Heaven.

Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.

House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, a alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires’ salvation. They may be the architects of its last, irreversible fall…

Thoughts: It’s not secret that I have a thing for fallen angels. So when I heard the synopsis of Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, I knew it was going to be a novel I’d have to look closely at. And this book is simply unlike anything I’ve ever read before, making it a stand-out addition to my personal library.

Paris has been devastated, thanks to destruction caused by warring fallen angels. The city is in ruin, gangs roam the streets, angel body parts and blood get sold on the black market, and the Great Houses still stand. House Silverspires was once the House of Morningstar, the architect of the falling of the angels, guiding followers in their survival. That is, until he vanished, leaving Silverspires with failing magics and slowly weakening defenses, with other Houses circling it like sharks closing in for the kill. But Philippe, a non-angelic (Fallen or otherwise) immortal with a mysterious past, might be the key to changing the fortunes of House Silverspires and everyone within it. For good or for ill.

This is an odd book. It’s slow, bordering on ponderous, and it’s largely free of the typical action scenes most readers of SFF come to expect in novels. That being said, there’s still a lot to take in, and the story itself is complex and full of spectacular levels of world-building. It combines myths from various religions and regions, some interesting takes on those myths, an alternate history, and all that’s before you even get into the diverse cast of characters who drive the story along. Selene, the leader of Silverspires, hard because she has to take up the mantle of a legend and keep her House and its dependents safe. Madeleine, hiding her addiction to angel essence, which is understandably taboo in Houses when you consider that it involves consuming pieces of an angel’s body.

And then there’s Morningstar. Morningstar, known more to us as Lucifer, appears mostly in flashbacks and memories, the founder of House Silverspires and Selene’s vanished mentor. Morningstar, so charismatic that people, be they angel or human, flocked to him. Morningstar, whose House is now crumbling and who is still somehow related to the events occurring, only just how he’s connected doesn’t really make sense until you have all the pieces of the puzzle. For a character who’s pretty much only there in spirit, he’s definitely a favourite of mine, and I found myself looking forward to Philippe’s looks into the past so that I could see more of the mysterious fallen angel himself.

The writing is downright lyrical at times, evoking some powerful imagery and emotion as the story progresses. It’s a very character-driven story in many ways, since although some plot points were put in motion long before the characters in question ever came onto the scene, it’s Philippe and Selene and Madeleine and Isabelle that move it along. Their mistakes, their curiosities, their fear and desperation and drive, all influence Silverspires. In a way, the House is the novel’s real focus, almost a character in itself, since the story is all about its slow decline and everyone’s attempts to keep it safe and overcome the darkness threatening it.

It’s hard to discuss this book without mentioning spoilers all over the place, honestly. Some books I can manage just fine with in reviews, and others are so rich and sense that it’s hard to say, “This whole section is great because…” or “It really hit home when this character did…” I’ve said before that some of the best novels are the hardest to review, for this very reason, and The House of Shattered Wings is definitely one of those books. There’s so much to it, layers of story and myth and characterization, plots that intertwine, breaking off sometimes but always coming back in the end, and while it takes a few mental twists to follow along at times, it’s worth the effort.

It’s a slow-burn kind of novel, and definitely not for everyone. I imagine that the slow pace would turn away some readers, as well as the fact that it’s set in an alternate past that was affected by various aspects of different myths. It’s a bit trick to wrap your head around exactly where and when this takes place, beyond, “Paris, ruined, with people dressing in fashions from decades ago.” Which, looked at more objectively, goes to show the fine attention to detail that de Bodard put into creating this fascinating setting. It’s a dark and beautiful book, filled with fear and hope in equal measure, and it certainly was unique. An acquired taste, perhaps, but one that suits me very well. If this is what I can expect from other things the author has written, then consider me a fan right from the outset!

(Received for review from the publisher.)