This year is being A Lot, isn’t it? I’m not sure how to handle it.
One of the ways I’m trying to, though, is by revisiting some books that are… I won’t call them “old” favourites, because very few of them are more than ten years old. Past favourites, perhaps. It’s interesting to see which hold up after some time and reflection, and which still mean just as much to me, albeit in different ways—and where my feelings have changed. Over the next couple of columns, I mean to share some of those visits.
Foz and I became friends sometime before the London Worldcon in 2014, where we both lost a Best Fan Writer Hugo to Kameron Hurley—an award Foz has since gone on to win. Re-reading the Manifold Worlds duology now is strongly comforting, because its tone is so full of Foz’s matter-of-fact kindness and generosity (and sense of humour) that it’s almost like having a chat with a friend.
I say “almost” because most chats with friends aren’t full of narrative tension, fascinating and thoughtful worldbuilding, and both the painful inevitability of change and the hard work of healing from trauma. The duology takes the traditional, colonialist assumptions of portal fantasy, where someone from our world enters another and becomes pivotal to events, and puts them under a microscope. An ensemble cast of characters (compelling and diverse) deal with questions of power and responsibility, damage and recovery—but some damage you can’t fix, and have to learn to live with; sometimes all the power you can touch isn’t enough to rectify the problems that you face. An Accident of Stars and A Tyranny of Queens don’t shy from that.
And the characters are really great. Saffron Coulter, the girl from our world who ends up in another, is the centre of an ensemble that includes several other young people coming of age as well as a number of adults doing their best to handle a messy set of political coups. All of them have compelling lives and motivations, and all of them—even the villains—are treated with a generous measure of empathy. While the structure of A Tyranny of Queens is a little out of kilter, that’s more than outweighed by how much I enjoy the characters and world. And right now, novels with this much compassion and kindness are a balm for my soul.
Aliette de Bodard, In the Vanishers’ Palace (JABberwocky Literary Agency, 2018)
Kindness and compassion. In this adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, those things stand out: people trying their best in the midst of a ruined world.
The Vanishers are long gone—vanished, like their name implies—but the ruin they wreaked on the world remains, in tainted harvests and devastating illnesses. Yên is a failed scholar, teacher of village children, the only child of the village healer. Both she and her mother are marginal, unimportant in the calculations of power. When Yên’s mother summons a dragon in a last-ditch effort to save the life of the daughter of one of the village elders, matters fall out so that Yên’s life is the price. Sold to Vu Côn, last of the dragons to still move in the world, Yên expects to die. After all—everyone knows that dragons kill.
Vu Côn has responsibilities of her own: she’s a healer, her life spent treating the diseases the Vanishers loosed upon the world, or at least preventing their spread. And she is raising two children—rambunctious, energetic, isolated—on her own. She has a use for Yên. Her children need a tutor. And what Yên wants—well, it’s not like Yên can go home again, is it?
(The reader may be forgiven for believing that Vu Côn is actually terribly lonely.)
Yên and Vu Côn’s mutual attraction starts from these unpromising beginnings. But In the Vanishers’ Palace is a novella about living in an imperfect world, and making it better; about duty and constraint and affection—and making better choices when you realise you’ve made poor ones. One of the strongest repeating themes is the bond between mothers and children: mothers protecting their children, children protecting their mothers, all the choices made out of love and loyalty to try to shelter each other from the worst of the world.
It’s vivid and compelling, and every time I reread it, I find it has more to say. I find it means more to me with each reading.
Stay safe, people.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.