Book Love: In the Vanishers' Palace
One of my favourite SFF books of 2018 was IN THE VANISHERS’ PALACE by Aliette de Bodard. It first caught my eye because the “f/f Beauty & the Beast retelling” comp looked intriguing — with dragons! The Beast is a dragon! I’d also read some of de Bodard’s other work in the past, so I knew I could expect a rich, compelling story. But even though I didn’t read it until November, this one immediately shot into my ‘best of the year’ list.
This book was everything: atmospheric, evocative, emotional, thought-provoking and brilliantly written. I loved all the character relationships, the Vietnamese-inspired setting, the language-based magic system, and the mixing of sci-fi and fantasy elements. Interwoven with the characters’ story is a poignant exploration of the aftermath of colonialism, with themes of resilience, family bonds, and strength after trauma.
In a post-apocalyptic world shattered by an alien occupation, Yên is an unsuccessful scholar, living in a village that clings to the brink of survival. The land is poisoned in the wake of the Vanishers, mysterious invaders who stripped the world of its resources before departing again. The Vanishers left behind a world in pain, littered with dangerous technological artifacts. Humanity is recovering, but is still struck by various mutations of a wasting plague.
The ancient spirits that used to inhabit the land and rivers have disappeared, likewise subdued by the Vanishers. Yet their dormant power still has the potential to influence the world, and when Yên’s mother invokes the old magic to save the life of a dying girl, the dragon Vu Côn obliges. The spell is successful, but the dragon demands a terrible price in return: Yên will be taken as payment, believing that she’ll forfeit her life.
It turns out that what Vu Côn actually wants is a scholar – Yên – to tutor her two children. Thông and Liên are on the verge of adulthood, struggling to come to terms with their identities in a broken world while also trying to assert their independence from their mother. Yên begins to teach the dragon’s children, gradually learning more about the power of magic and her own place in the world. As they all hesitantly start to trust one another, that trust becomes complicated by the secrets they each keep and the truths that inevitably surface.
I loved the central romance, but the complex family dynamics are just as integral to the story. Alongside the developing feelings between Yên and Vu Côn, the narrative beautifully explores family bonds, both blood and chosen. Yên’s interactions with the twins, and the children’s changing relationship with their mother, make for some of the most emotional scenes in the book. And Yên’s relationship with her own mother also plays an important role in her journey.
This was quite a slender book (198 pages in paperback) but it packs in so much worldbuilding and character development that it felt much bigger than its page count.
Everything about this story was memorable, from the vivid characters to the haunting settings to the mind-boggling, gravity-defying geometry in the Palace. And the questions that remained unanswered at the end have left me thinking about them long after I turned the last page.