In the Vanisher's Palace
Let’s start with the concept behind In the Vanisher’s Palace: it’s an f/f retelling of Beauty and the Beast in a hybrid sci-fi/fantasy setting infused with Vietnamese culture and fairy tales. I was extremely excited by this, and on the whole, I wasn’t disappointed.
The devastating “breaking of the world” by an alien race known as the Vanishers left humanity, including Yên’s village, at the brink of collapse. When the daughter of the head of the village falls ill and Yên’s mother summons the dragon Vu Côn to heal her, the corrupt elders sacrifice Yên to the dragon as payment. But failed scholar Yên is not killed, experimented on, or tortured – she’s set to work tutoring the dragon’s two children.
Beauty and the Beast is a frequently done romance trope, and one I love, but this was honestly not the best spin on this plot device. Vu Côn and Yên don’t share enough scenes, and the ones they have do not establish a profound personal connection. Yên has a physical attraction to Vu Côn early and in her dragon form, and she’s more concerned with Vu Côn’s higher status than the fact that she’s literally inhuman. This leaves just one remaining obstacle, Vu Côn making too many decisions for Yên, which feels one-dimensional.
I liked the fantasy elements, especially the concept that magic, including healing, is done by wielding words and classical phrases. The description of the Vanisher’s palace blends fantasy and sci-fi elements – including word magic – but also distortions of space and physics, and contains technological elements like stasis beds. At times this setting is disorienting. I could tell this was intentional – heady weirdness is a legit and particular SF/F vibe, and it’s competently executed here. I never questioned that the author understood the setting. I prefer more straightforward Bujold settings to Annihilation-type mindbenders, but it’s up to you if this is your style.
There are many secondary characters, all of which are well-developed individuals. Vu Côn’s child Thông’s transition into puberty and emerging new powers is probably the richest plotline in the book. Giving a secondary character so much agency added tension because I can predict a protagonist but genuinely wasn’t sure what would happen with Thông. I also liked Yên’s mother, a healer with a strict moral core but a fatalistic acceptance of her harsh reality, and Village Elder Giang, who recognizes the corruption of the Elders but cannot see their way to challenging the system outright.
Both Thông and Giang are, presumably, nonbinary characters, as the author gives them They pronouns, and I appreciated that it’s a normal non-issue. I’m a language geek, so I enjoyed the elements of Vietnamese, which is spoken by the characters. For instance, we often don’t know a character’s gender identity until they speak, when their choice of Vietnamese pronoun reveals their gender and also their relative status. The characters need to be strategic and thoughtful about choosing forms of address, sometimes to avoid offense and other times to convey authority or intimacy. (Just one problem – Vietnamese has a pronoun for a literal younger sister and a wife/intimate woman, so I get that it’s authentic, but seeing both a sister and a lover called “Lil’ Sis” in this book just feels wrong in English).
If you want to read something in the ‘heady’ realm, and if you don’t mind a romance that’s secondary to world building and individual characters, then this is a strong read.