Before I started the Hessan's County blog, this all started out as me doing informal book reviews on the Rule of Lore discord's Media Club. I wanted to bring back some of those reviews and polish them up to my current standard, so here is the first of those!
In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard is a surreal post-apocalyptic science fantasy heavily based around Việt philosophy and mythology, as well as inspiration from some European fairy tales like the Beauty and the Beast. To provide the most basic of summaries, an educated young woman, Yên, is indentured to the powerful dragon Vu Côn. Yên's village is in debt and Vu Côn was in need of a teacher for her two children who reside in the former home of the Vanishers. These Vanishers were masters of genetic manipulation and advanced technologies that left the world devastated and twisted, but they have since left or been destroyed. The palace-lab-prison they have left behind holds many dark secrets and dangers, but may also hold the key to improving life for humanity on the devastated planet.
A lot of the science fiction elements contained include advanced, poorly understood technologies, traditional medicine blended with genetic manipulation, aliens or spirits, and elements of body horror coming from the legacy of the Vanishers. The elements of the story involving the children touch on debates of nature vs nurture. Major elements from this story also echo the Beauty and the Beast beyond the romance, such as the dangers of arrogance when in positions of power and debates around valuing things based on utility.
Some basic knowledge of Vietnamese language and culture will be really helpful when reading this novella. In the Vanishers' Palace explores the fundamental Confucian relationships and there were some tensions between characters based on Vietnamese pronouns that modify based on age differences and the intimacy of the relationship between the two speakers. The author tries to explain it in the moment, but already having the background will go far in improving the story's immersion.
As I alluded to earlier, there is a same-sex romance that develops in the story. While there are at time strange power dynamics going on in it, the relationship is consensual and a critical part of the plot. There are also elements of found family & adoption addressed and several non-binary presenting characters.
Personally I would give this story a 4.5 out of 5. If I had any complaints, it is that the novel is only 145 pages long. While the story did not feel truncated, I also felt that Bodard could have invested some more pages into exploring the world and the relationships that are created throughout the course of the story.
I would also like to give a word of warning to anyone considering this book. When I say In the Vanishers' Palace is surreal, I mean Surreal. Bodard's descriptions of many situations in the book can be disorientating for some, especially if you experience bleed when reading fiction. There were one or two moments where I had to take a break due to this disorientation, but I can experience bleed while reading pretty strongly.