by Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: JABberwocky Literary Agency
Publication Date: October 16, 2018
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
From the award-winning author of the Dominion of the Fallen series comes a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast.
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...
I’d previously read – and loved – Ms. de Bodard’s reimagining of Sherlock and Watson, so when I saw she had a Beauty and the Beast retelling coming out, I was ridiculously excited – and even more so when I saw the gorgeous cover. Ms. de Bodard has a way of condensing a familiar story down to its bones, and then rebuilding it in a way that’s both familiar and unfamiliar. What we end up with, in this case is a delightfully queer Vietnamese-flavored post-apocalyptic fairy tale – with dragons!
The Vanishers came, destroyed the earth with pollution and genetic modification viruses, and then left suddenly (as the name suggests). The people left survive in small villages, with survival of the healthiest being the rule. Yên is the daughter of the village healer and the schoolteacher, but after showing no aptitude for magic and failing the scholar examination, she knows it’s only a matter of time before she’s banished or killed. When her mother calls upon the old spirits to heal the daughter of one of the village elders, the dragon Vu Côn answers, and demands a life as payment. The elders offer up Yên, and so she becomes the teacher to the twins in Vu Côn’s palace, a Vanisher relic that thumbs its nose at physics and seems more likely to kill its inhabitants than protect them. An attraction simmers between the girl and the dragon, but Vu Côn thinks her attentions are unwanted and Yên considers herself a prisoner and beneath the dragon’s notice.
“She wore flowing silk: a stark, black cloth of a shade that Yên had only seen in Vanishers’ cloth, with not one clearer patch to mar the deep color. When she moved, it was as if the night sky shifted and spread around her. What would it be like, to have those sleeves enfold Yên—those long, thin fingers wrapped around Yên’s shoulders? Yên found her breath catching in her throat again.
Beautiful. No. No. She couldn’t afford to think of the dragon that way. She was Yên’s master, Yên’s executioner. There was no future in desire or love.”
Vu Côn is fascinating – selfless, in the sense that she’s seemingly the last spirit to take any interest in humans, but also arrogant in that she thinks she knows what’s best for everyone (without actually asking them), and in believing in her ability to control a situation – or her own emotions. I loved the relationship between Vu Côn and the twins. They’re poised on the brink of adulthood, and it was sweet to see the powerful dragon struggle tread the line between treating them like the children she remembers and the adults they will become. Honestly, the twins stole the show in any scene they were in. Yên, for her part, is brave – first fighting for her place in the village and later standing up to Vu Côn. Their relationship is slow and fraught with problems. Ms. de Bodard doesn’t shy away from the problems inherent in their relationship (prisoner/captor, mortal/dragon, young/ancient, powerless/powerful). One of the more fascinating themes was when it’s morally acceptable to keep information from someone – if the knowledge won’t change anything but will only hurt them?
There’s so much more, too. There’s a lyrical quality to the story that’s simply magical. Things involving the village smell like mold and decay, the Vanishers’ magic is full of knives and destruction, and Vu Côn is swamps and deep rivers. The pacing is tight without feeling like the story’s rushing along. The worldbuilding in general, and the magic system in particular, is fascinating. In the end, though, it’s the characters that really made the story shine for me.
Overall, this was an absolute delight and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an original and immersive fairy tale retelling.