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.
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