Aliette de Bodard frequently appears on lists of the most exciting authors currently working in the fantasy field, but I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read anything by her until now (despite owning several of her works). As a writer of French-Vietnamese descent, she’s interested in exploring fantasy traditions beyond the white, European, medieval worlds that dominate the genre. In this novella, for example, she takes us to a post-apocalyptic Vietnam, in which a young woman is given up by the elders of her village to placate a dragon. In its simplest form, it’s much the same story as Uprooted, but de Bodard challenges our expectations just as Novik did – though in a less familiar idiom.
Since the breaking of the world, when the Vanishers disappeared leaving desolation in their wake, humans have struggling against the odds. Yên’s small village is ringed with woods, where the creatures of the Vanishers still roam, and food is scarce enough that the elders are always watching out for those who aren’t useful, who don’t pull their weight. If you aren’t useful, there are only two options: exile or execution, the latter making use of a Vanisher device that literally flays the skin and muscles from a living body. It’s a torment that Yên can’t even imagine – but one that haunts her thoughts. She knows that her elderly mother, the village healer, is beginning to become a burden (in the eyes of the elders). Even worse, Yên knows that she herself is an even worse burden, for she has precious little to offer. She’s her mother’s assistant, but she can’t wield the magic that her mother commands in order to heal. She’s a teacher, trying to educate children in a world where simple survival is more important. She’s a scholar, who failed to qualify for the official exams that would have got her away from her stultifying, close-minded village and given her a glimpse of the world. In short, she’s dangerously close to becoming useless. When the daughter of the village headwoman falls perilously sick, Yên’s mother is forced to call upon a greater power to help with the healing – but a favour of that magnitude requires repayment. A life for a life.
Yên’s life is judged the most expendable. Yên, obviously, doesn’t agree but she has very little say in the matter. When the elders take her down to the river, and call on the healing spirit to take her payment, Yên is captivated by the elegant dragon which rises from the waters. Dragged down beneath the surface in her new mistress’s claws, Yên doesn’t know what to expect. Exactly what does one do, as the slave of a dragon spirit? She certainly doesn’t expect to wake up to find two children – well, teenagers – sitting on her bed waiting for her. To her astonishment, she learns that these are her new charges: the twins, Thông and Liên, children of the dragon Vu Côn. Yên is to teach them, to instil morality and respect, while they in turn introduce her to the terrifying wonders of Vu Côn’s home. For this is a palace created by the Vanishers, where normal rules don’t apply, where corridors twist and tumble, where doors open onto impossible worlds, and where danger lies around every corner.
And Yên doesn’t just have to adjust to the palace. She has to rethink everything she’s ever known, for Vu Côn is not just a fearsome dragon (though usually found in human form), but also a gifted and compassionate healer. Her new students are not only lively teens, but powerful creatures struggling to find their own place and form in the world. And it seems that Yên has found herself on the brink, in a place where worlds collide, where boundaries are thin, and where Yên’s own magical abilities are beginning to manifest. Indeed, the palace was so complicated that I often found de Bodard’s descriptions very hard to imagine – I failed on numerous occasions, which added to the sense of unreality even while meaning that I couldn’t get quite as lost in the world as I wanted to. There are so many ideas here that I wanted more space to explore, to understand – to get my head around exactly what this library looks like, and to understand more about the diseases suffered by Vu Côn’s unfortunate patients. As it is, with fewer than 150 pages, I simply couldn’t fix everything properly in my mind and the palace remains – appropriately – a shape-shifting, nebulous mass which doesn’t seem to have any particular form.
The novella also introduced me to various aspects of Vietnamese language and culture – specifically the customs of referring to strangers as ‘elder aunt’ or ‘younger aunt’, depending on their age, or ‘big sister’ or ‘little sister’ for intimate friends. De Bodard also tells us, several times, when characters use language that is particularly gendered – an important consideration, as two of her characters don’t identify with any gender and take the ‘they’ pronoun. It only struck me at the end that, with the exception of Vu Côn’s deceased husband (whom we never meet) and one other minor character, there are no male figures in this story. Everyone is either female or non-gendered. I don’t know whether women traditionally occupy more elevated positions in Vietnamese society than they do in old-school European cultures, or whether de Bodard created this matriarchal world specifically for her novel, but it adds another layer of exoticism to her story.
I enjoyed the chance to experience a different kind of fantasy – to get a sense of how dragons are regarded in Asian cultures, in particular. Despite its charm, the novella leaves many questions unanswered, especially with respect to the Vanishers (were they modified humans? Aliens? Spirits? Something else altogether?), so it isn’t perfect, but I get the feeling that a lot had to be sacrificed because it’s so short. It could easily have been expanded into a whole book, which would have allowed us more ‘cool-down’ space at the end, and explained a little more about the hospital that Vu Côn is running. As it is, however, it served as an amuse-bouche for the rest of de Bodard’s work, which I certainly will be reading, as much of it is already waiting on my Kindle.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review