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...
In The Vanisher's Palace is Aliette de Bodard's post-apocalyptic post-colonisation fantasy take on Beauty and the Beast, and it's really cool. Yên is a rural scholar, who gets traded to a dragon in her mother's place to pay off her village's debts; Vu Côn is a dragon attempting to fix a world that was ravaged then abandoned by the Vanishers. Together they... Well, attempt to raise Vu Côn's teenage children right while also reckoning with the after-effects this world has on them all?
I'm going to start with the world-building, because it turns out that I have a lot to say! I've mentioned before that I'm not really a fan of "everything is literal cancer" as a setting, but what I have learned from In the Vanisher’s Palace is that my objection is to worlds where the cancer is just an accepted hazard of life that no one can ever fix. In the Vanisher's Palace has a post-apocalyptic world where everything is terrible, but people are actively trying to fix it. People are trying to build lives and support each other, even in the face of the horrors of their world and power-hungry monsters like the leaders of Yên's village. Aliette de Bodard specifically tweeted about In the Vanisher's Palace as a post-colonial story, and it turns out that post-apocalyptic stories are way more interesting when the author asks questions like "What happens after the colonisers leave the world they've broken?" and "How do people try to fix something when the scale of what's broken is so large?" The answers aren't straightforward, but they involve people trying to make things better and quite frankly, that's what I need right now.
(Also: the world is terrible but people are allowed to be whatever gender they choose! And love who they choose! And it's completely unremarkable in this setting! I appreciate that a lot!)
And the world-building is really cool! Vu Côn's palace is an Escher-style nightmare palace where the architecture makes no sense, impossible geometry is rampant, and any door could lead to an untimely death, but the descriptions of it are beautiful. And for all that it's a fantasy story with magic and dragons, there are scifi elements woven in really well, like Vu Côn's patients, or the library that can just produce books whole cloth! They fit together really well. And the magic is fascinating – my notes have "MAGIC IS LANGUAGE, LANGUAGE IS MAGIC" written on them in big letters, and that's true! The magic of In the Vanisher's Palace is language based, and seeing Yên explore what is commonly understood about magic, and the way that she can use it brought me great joy! (If you're interested in the specifics of MAGIC IS LANGUAGE, Aliette de Bodard talked about the choices she made in the magic construction on twitter and it's amazing, especially for the importance of Vietnamese history on her choices.)
As for the story: I think In the Vanishers' Palace is about agency and independence? The village council of Yên's home attempt to force compliance with their will through abuse. Vu Côn's children are teenagers (which I hadn't realised from the blurb), and they're at the age where they're trying to figure out who they are independent of their mother, and what they can do to help people themselves. Vu Côn's arc is specifically about her learning to trust people to make their own choices and have their own knowledge! Yên specifically wants Vu Côn to stop making decisions for her and hiding things from her, and their romance is explicitly about negotiating the consent and power dynamics of a relationship where one person is a prisoner/employee and the other is a literal dragon. It's great, and I love the ways that the different characters approach these themes. And In the Vanishers' Palace specifically has motherhood in general and mothers specifically be important! Yên's mother is important to both Yên and Vu Côn, and she is an integral part of the story! Vu Côn's relationship with her children is equally important! THERE IS SPECIFICALLY FOUND FAMILY IN A WAY THAT DOESN'T CONFLICT WITH THE IMPORTANCE OF DUTY AND FAMILY TIES IN THIS CULTURE. It's excellent, okay, I love it. And I love the way that folklore is woven into the story and made relevant (... I wanted more of that, I'm not gonna lie), and the way that the children obviously don't know as much science as Vu Côn (or as they think they do), but they try to help anyway even when it's obvious to the audience at least that it's going to end so badly. (And the reveal of What Is Happening to Yên was so well done! It was so dramatic and cinematic, and I enjoyed it so much!)
Basically, In the Vanisher's Palace is the queer post-apocalyptic retelling of Beauty and the Beast that I didn't know I needed, and it's excellent. If you want stories about family and explicitly working out power dynamics, this is a really good place to start!
[This review is based off an ARC from the author.]