Book cover: In the Vanishers Palace - Aliette de Bodard (a woman in peach clothing running down stairs - or are they coils - under a dragons watchful eye)The Vanishers left the world in tatters. The waters are poisoned, disease is rampant, lives are balanced against value and need. The elders give Yên to a dragon as payment for a healing; but what value can a failed scholar have to an immortal spirit? What need can an unwanted peasant girl fulfil?

You might take it as read that I loved Aliette de Bodard’s latest outing, given my regular outbursts of enthusiasm for her work. Unusually, de Bodard has taken the step of self-publishing, as In the Vanishers’ Palace is considered a tough sell for its unusual length – too long for a novella, but well shy of a novel. However, not being worried about word count (and not being a publisher, I’m not), the pitch hit me perfectly between the eyes: a post-apocalyptic f/f re-imagining of a classic fairytale… with added dragons.

HELLO YES THIS IS RELEVANT TO MY INTERESTS.

I have a lot of affection for Beauty and the Beast, but In the Vanishers’ Palace is a loose adaptation at most. It is a haunted, twisting love story built around the struggle between desire and duty, respect and status set in a future in which highly-advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. The Vanishers (as the name suggests) are gone, but their destructive constructs linger in a world poisoned by pollution and uncontrollable genetic mutations. But magic has its place too: the dragon is a water spirit; when asked about the nature of magic, the Vanishers’ Palace library calls it ‘speech’. Words have power here – to summon, to bind, to hurt – and to heal.

De Bodard excels at immersive world-building. Here she rapidly builds both the toxic environment of Yên’s village and the intoxicating, overwhelming otherworld of the Vanishers’ Palace. She evokes atmosphere with details of spoiled food, creaking floors and the scent of rot for the village; and the dizzying, unreal vistas of the Palace. If I could never quite imagine the Palace, this is mostly because it is so wholly other, unbound by the laws of physics – a series of spaces with no relation to one another, best navigated by will and with caution (and with eyes kept firmly on the floor).

Yên has grown up in poverty, amongst farmers praying for any crop, however meagre or bitter; and she has grown up in fear, constantly aware that the Elders can cast her out to die in the forest. Her mother, Kim Ngoc, is a healer, but even she holds no certainty about their future. She considers her death inevitable, and has made peace with the idea of doing her best for her patients while she can. Yên is less sanguine, determined to carve out a safe haven for them both. But she failed the exams to become an Imperial scholar, and her position as teacher to the village’s children is precariously non-essential. Replaceable. Unnecessary.

When Kim Ngoc summons a dragon to heal the headwoman’s daughter, the price is set in advance: a life for a life. The village Elders are quick to offer Yên’s – and dragon Vu Côn is quick to accept it. She puts Yên to work teaching her children (who aren’t quite what they seem), and leaves her to it.

While there’s an undeniable attraction between the dragon and the scholar, some lines can’t be crossed easily. Vu Côn won’t force herself on someone she knows fears her; and Yên considers herself a prisoner, and too common to catch a dragon’s eye. It’s a simmering romance, centred around themes of respect, choice and selfhood – where every untold secret threatens the fragile trust building between them.

As usual with de Bodard’s novellas, the deeper we go, the bigger the questions become: are we defined by who we are or what we do? do we have the right to make choices on behalf of others? how should we deal with failure? how (and why) do we place value on the people in our lives? And crucially, how do you seduce a dragon?

Those weirded out by interspecies romance should probably stay well clear, but I loved this thoughtful story of unexpected love against the odds.

★★★★

I received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review

In the Vanishers Palace is released today (October 16th)