In the Vanishers’ Palace- Aliette de Bodard

I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

There was nothing wrong with this book. In fact it had several things going for it. Ethical complexity, an amazing setting/premise, and some linguistic coolness (watch the pronoun shifts). But ultimately it didn’t dig into the things I thought were interesting in the setting and characters, and I became a bit bored.

To summarize briefly: the Vanishers, powerful and cruel creatures, have left Earth, leaving a fractured and sickened (both literally and metaphorically) society and environment in their wake. Yên, a young scholar from a small Vietnamese village, is traded to a (female) shapeshifting dragon by the unscrupulous local elders after her mother calls on the spirit for a healing.

Yên soon finds she is not going to be eaten, but rather will tutor the dragon’s children. She also finds herself falling for the dragon, but they have plenty of obstacles to overcome in their relationship, including the dragon’s tendency to make decisions for other people and the true identity of her children.

The background about the Vanishers and how the world is still dealing with the consequences of their reign long after they’ve left Earth behind is amazing. I particularly liked Yên’s revelation as to how the Vanishers shaped the people’s conceptions of power and resources, leading to the misrule of the elders of her village. However, only four characters were deeply explored: Yên, her mother, the dragon, and one of the children, Thong. Even the second child, Liên, didn’t get much exploration, and interesting side characters like Yên’s loyal village friend who is healed by the dragon, or Elder Giang, who feels conflicted and damned by her role in the village’s power structure, were picked up and dropped. Obviously, not everything can be explored in a short novella, but I found the side characters consistently more compelling than the major ones and wondered if their story might have been more interesting.

There were a lot of deep ethical questions raised, and I loved Yên’s duty-bound scholar morality, but ultimately the main message was rather obvious: don’t make decisions for other people without asking them. I would have liked thornier dilemmas.

Basically, the setting is amazing and as a novel with more room to explore this might have worked better, but as it stands it left me a bit cold.

The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold

The Curse of Chalion is a secondary-world fantasy based off Spanish history–the youth of Isabel I and the Reconquista. Names and some events are changed, but there are clear analogues. Of course, the titular curse is fictional, tying together a string of bad luck in real life as a magical disaster haunting the royal family.

I enjoyed the book greatly–whether you know the history it’s drawing on or not, it’s a wonderful theological adventure, in which fantasy gods play a prominent role. My post however will be less about the book’s many good qualities, and more about something that troubled me.

I don’t pretend to know a lot about the Reconquista, but I do know that during Isabel’s reign, Muslims and Jews were expelled from the country. In this fantasy world, the Christian equivalent are Quintarians, worshippers of the Five Gods, whereas the Muslim equivalent, the Quadrenes, see one of the gods as a demon and do not worship him. In general, the fictional religions have nothing to do with their real life counterparts–the only reason I call them equivalents is because of their position in the political situation. For example, the Quintarians are accepting of homosexuality, because it’s thought to be part of the fifth god’s domain. Obviously 15th century Christians were monotheists and also thought homosexuality a sin.

There is no equivalent population to the Sephardic Jews in this story, which greatly simplifies the ethics of the situation. There also don’t appear to be any equivalent to the moriscos–Muslims of Spanish rather than Moorish origin–which again makes it a lot more clear-cut. There are invaders, occupiers to be kicked out, and no collateral damage along the way. Moreover, the Quintarians are, in the context of the book, objectively right about their religious beliefs. The Quadrenes are simply wrong. 51k72bgtswml-_sy344_bo1204203200_

Now this is obviously not a direct take on the Reconquista and assorted fallout, but a world where magic is real. It still troubled me how thorny historical issues and atrocities are smoothed out in the fantasy world, when it’s so easy to draw equivalents to the real world (Isabel=Iselle, Enrique=Orico, Beatriz de Boabadilla=Betriz). Iselle herself is a lot less complicated and flawed than her real-life counterpart, because she simply has a less complex situation to deal with.

Another series that similarly troubled me was Aliette de Bodard’s Aztec books, in which the Aztec gods are real and demand human sacrifice. This takes place in a world exactly like our own otherwise, without the poetic license of a true secondary world. It seems to justify to some degree the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, making the historical crime of unwilling sacrifice much more palatable.

I don’t have an easy solution for any of this. In fact, I think fiction and particularly fantasy is a good place to explore issues and counterfactuals that make no sense or are even dangerous ideas in the real world. I loved The Curse of Chalion in part because I could recognize how Bujold had taken real events and cleverly made them fantastical, and I am reading the sequel, Paladin of Souls. But the ethics of using and twisting real history in fantasy bothered me nonetheless.