Tag Archives: Novella

In the Vanishers’ Palace

Vietnamese-inspired queer fantasy novella

It was my turn to host the feminist fantasy book club I’m in, but alas: social distancing. I had chosen this book after coming across a list of Asian-inspired fantasy and this one looked particularly interesting. However, until basically this past weekend, having guests over was basically illegal and that meant that book club was suspended indefinitely. Except, I really wanted to have book club and was missing all my friends, so I decided to host a virtual book club. Three members put their hand up for a DIY dinner pack, and I had a great time foraging for ingredients and containers to put together the bare bones of a two-ish course meal that just needed wet ingredients and cooking. The menu: rice paper rolls, pho and spiked Vientamese coffee. The evening was pretty successful! While there were some technical difficulties early on, and limits to how many could be in the video chat at once, and some mysterious reverberation, it was a great night and I loved seeing what everyone cooked.

In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

“In the Vanisher’s Palace” by Aliette de Bodard is a fantasy novella retelling of the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast“. The story is about Yên, a young woman who lives in a traditional village governed by strict rules and hierarchies. Unless part of the social elite, a villager is only tolerated as long as they remain useful. Yên, an aspiring academic but yet to pass the requisite exams, instead teaches children and helps her mother, the village healer. When Yên’s friend, the daughter of a village elder, is infected by a plague, Yên’s mother summons an ancient dragon called Vu Côn to save her life. However, in this broken world, nothing comes for free, and the village agrees to give Yên to the dragon to pay the debt. Yên is whisked away to a strange palace where Vu Côn sets her the task of teaching her two spirited children. Once there, Yên marvels at the mysterious and deadly palace and slowly grows closer to Vu Côn. However, with the threat of the plague looming closer and secrets threatening to erupt, the least of Yên’s worries is a broken heart.

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My DIY dinner pack

This is a unique story that takes the general elements of “Beauty and the Beast” and reimagines them in a completely different setting. de Bodard is quite a lyrical writer with a keen interest in language and words, and fuses fantasy and science fiction elements to create the palace that is Vu Côn’s home. One room seems to contain a magical library whereas another contains extremely modern technology, and I enjoyed de Bodard’s interplay between modern and ancient.

Rhiannon's cooking

My friend Rhiannon’s cooking

This is certainly an incredibly inclusive book and aside from queer romance, there are non-binary characters, diverse examples of female leadership and the book itself clearly draws on de Bodard’s own Vietnamese heritage.

However, I wouldn’t say that this would be my first recommendation for a book during the coronavirus crisis. This is quite a dark book, and Yên’s is a world ravaged by illnesses left by the mysterious Vanishers with those who fall ill facing banishment or worse. Given the current times, it was a little hard to want to pick this up to relax after a day spent reading the news.

My cooking

My attempt

In a similar way to “The Black Tides of Heaven“, I felt that de Bodard raced through this story a little and that the concept of the Vanishers could have been fleshed out a little, or at least hinted at a bit more strongly, than simply the ruins left behind. I also felt that the romantic aspect of the book was a little hurried, and some of the subtlety could have been teased out a little further.

Vietnamese Coffee

My spiked Vietnamese coffee

Nevertheless, this is a quick and spirited read that is an original retelling of a classic fairy tale.

Spike's cooking

And, last but not least, Spike using up some of the noodles for lunch the following day

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Novella, Science Fiction

Into Bones Like Oil

Horror novel about searching for and escaping the dead

Giveaway details at the bottom of the review

This is a very special book because it was one of the several lots that I won earlier this year in the #AuthorsforFireys Twitter auctions to raise money for the Australian bushfires. I know the multiple award-winning Canberra author, whose books I have reviewed previously and who has been a guest on the Lost the Plot Podcast, and the pack she was offering was a very exciting one. She was offering a copy of her book together with an interactive, multi-sensory experience for the reader to enjoy while reading the book. After I won, we met up shortly afterwards on another very stormy day (which seems to be a theme!) and had the exchange over drinks. I couldn’t wait to set everything up so I could spend a Sunday evening savouring the book and all the items that came with it.

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“Into Bones Like Oil” by Kaaron Warren is a horror novella about a woman called Dora who arrives at The Anglesea, an old boarding house by the coast. The house is run by the friendly but unsettling Roy, and is full of many other guests, some of whom Dora only sees glimpses of at breakfast. It’s a short walk to the beach and an old shipwreck. At first, Dora feels that the guests appear to be all connected by the fact that they are escaping something. Many of them sleep for days without emerging from their rooms. However, the longer she stays at The Anglesea, the more she grows to realise that people don’t seem to ever leave The Anglesea, and neither did the ship’s passengers.

This is an incredible eerie story about guilt and greed, and how those made vulnerable by pain can easily be exploited by others. Dora is a great character, and the more we learn about her past, the more we understand how she ended up at a place like The Anglesea. Although it is a novella, there is plenty packed in and Warren’s writing is complex and insightful. This book seeps into you and lingers long after you finish reading.

Warren is an incredibly vivid writer, and this book really lends itself to enjoying alongside a sensory pack. If you want to make your own pack, here is what you will need:

  • Page 1 – key
  • Page 3 – clock & battery
  • Page 4 – a seashell (to listen to)
  • Page 8 – a scarf
  • Page 15 – a glass and a shot of vodka
  • Page 31 – paints
  • Page 32 – curry
  • Page 48 – striped shirt & Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Nocturama CD
  • Page 52 – Cheezles
  • Page 65 – soap
  • Page 69 – perfume
  • Page 72 – baked beans
  • Page 74 – girls’ brush

I had so much fun setting up the pack and working through it. I arranged everything clockwise in a circle. I managed to get stuck on the second item, the clock and battery, because I couldn’t quite get the battery in, but managed to wedge it in using the key. When I listened to the seashell, the effect was slightly spoiled by a jet flying over at exactly that moment, but I waited until it passed and tried again. I was a bit of a wuss with the peach-flavoured vodka, and had to mix it with lemonade after the first taste. The paints were great fun, and I was inspired to do a little painting.

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Unfortunately, because I had set everything up at once, by the time I got to the curry at page 32 it was a little lukewarm, but that was easily fixed in the microwave. Also, hilariously, the Dove brand soap had seeped into some of the other items, especially the fabric ones, so everything smelled very clean. The perfume was a really nice touch. I don’t wear much perfume, but there is something very evocative about it.

Anyway, this was an deeply unsettling book that was made all the more immersive with the sensory pack, and both are a testament to Warren’s creativity.

To pay this great experience forward, I will restock the sensory pack and give it to the first person who contacts me via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with proof of purchase of “Into Bones Like Oil”. Open to Canberrans only, and I will drop it off in a contactless way at a location of your choosing. 

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Horror, Novella, Signed Books

Silver in the Wood

Exquisite queer fantasy novella

My friend received this book as a gift from her partner, and was absolutely raving about it, so agreed to lend it to me. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but it has a beautifully evocative cover and it is quite short, so I was optimistic.

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“Silver in the Wood” by Emily Tesh is a fantasy novella about a wild man rumoured to live in the woods called Greenhollow. On closer inspection, the wild name has a name: Tobias. He lives in harmony with the forest he is bound to, alone save his cat and local dryads. However, one day a young man arrives at Tobias’ cottage and with cheerful optimism throws his quiet life into disarray.

This is an absolutely lovely book that had me hooked from the beginning. Tesh is a beautiful writer who has a gift for knowing how much to give the reader, and how much to keep back. Tobias and Henry are great characters, and this book glitters with its earthy, understated magic. Although it is a quick read, it is full of surprises, and takes some classic folklore themes into some unexpected places.

There isn’t much to fault this book on. Perhaps the only thing is that towards the end of the story, there is a bit of a break in the narrative which felt a little jarring compared to the dreamy pace of the rest of the book. However, it made complete sense for the plot, so really it’s hardly a fault.

This is an incredibly enjoyable, refreshing and succinct story that was an absolute delight to read.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Novella

The Ice Palace

Norwegian literary novel about a missing schoolgirl

Content warning: missing child

While on my trip to Northern Europe, I wanted to read a book from every country I visited. This book is hailed as a Norwegian classic, and I was keen to try something a bit different to Scandi Noir.

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“The Ice Palace” by Tarjei Vesaas and translated by Elizabeth Rokkan is a literary novel about a young girl called Siss who meets a new girl in school just as winter is setting in at her small Norwegian town – freezing the river solid. Although Unn is much more reserved than popular Siss, Siss is nevertheless drawn to her and the two girls spend an intimate evening playing together. The next day, after Unn skips school to explore a frozen waterfall, the town bands together to try and find her. One of the last to see her, Siss is grilled for answers as to where she may be. While Unn remains missing, Siss is also at risk of being lost.

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Icicles on traditional houses just outside Oslo, Norway

This is a beautiful, eerie novel that explores the intense yet fragile nature of the friendship of young girls. I don’t like to compare books too much, but it reminded me of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “Cat’s Eye” by Margaret Atwood. It had a similar dreamy quality juxtaposed against the sharp clarity of friendship, made all the more dramatic by the captivating yet deadly winter landscape. The opening scenes of the book with the cracking sounds of the ice in the darkness and the frozen beauty of the waterfall was mesmerising. This is quite a short book, almost a novella, and I am still haunted by it. Vesaas knows exactly how much information to give to the reader, and exactly how much to withhold. I also thought that he provides the reader with an incredible insight into the life-shattering and unresolved grief that comes with knowing someone who has gone missing.

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A waterfall on our way to Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord

This was an excellent, haunting book that is an ideal novel for travelling through the spectacular scenery of Norway.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, General Fiction

The Black Tides of Heaven

Genderqueer non-Western fantasy by a Singaporean author

It was my turn to pick a book for my feminist fantasy book club, and after we’d read quite a few lengthy stories, I decided to go for a novella. I checked out the shortlists from the 2018 Hugo Awards, and this book looked the most interesting.

“The Black Tides of Heaven” by JY Yang is a fantasy novella, is the first in a trilogy of silkpunk novellas called the “Tensorate” series. It begins with twins Mokoya and Akeha, children of the Protector, who grow up in the Grand Monastery in the Protectorate after given away by their mother as newborns to settle a debt. Raised genderfree like all children of the Protectorate, the twins are especially close. However, as their gifts develop, the reach adulthood and politics shift, the twins find that their once unbreakable bond pulled to its limits.

This is a really interesting novella with a setting that I absolutely adored. The magic system, the Slack, was intriguing and the twins were a great way to explore the limits of different kinds of powers. The premise of children being raised genderfree was really interesting as well, as well as the ability for children to affirm their gender as adults.  Yang has a sparse but compelling style of writing and it was so refreshing to read fantasy set somewhere that wasn’t based on medieval Europe. I was so excited to cook some themed food for my book club, and I scoured the novella for references to food and built the menu around that.

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I think, however, that this is one of the very rare times that I felt like the book was too short. Not too short in that it ended abruptly, but too short in the way a piano accordion is short when compressed and there’s a lot that’s folded away out of sight. The story ranges from the twins’ birth to their adulthood, but it skips along so quickly that it did feel a little hard to get invested in the characters. Yang clearly has a lot in mind for their world the Tensorate, and I think that there was enough to this book that they could go back and beef it up with more characterisation and worldbuilding.

I would also like to say something about pronouns. I’ve reviewed a couple of books that use gender-neutral pronouns like “Ancillary Justice” and “The Left Hand of Darkness“. In the former, Leckie uses she to refer to everyone, and in the latter le Guin uses he. Yang uses they, which I have seen used and used myself online and in my personal life. However, there were a couple of moments where the meaning wasn’t immediately clear from context whether Yang was referring to one twin in a gender-neutral singular, or whether Yang was referring to both twins with a plural. The English language is, unfortunately, very clunky when it comes to pronouns. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I’m almost wondering, especially in a book set in a world inspired by cultures in Asia, whether or not it might have been better to just abandon English pronouns altogether and pick a pronoun from a language that already has gender neutral pronoun. Indonesian, for example, uses the pronoun dia for everyone regardless of gender.

Anyway, this was an interesting and creative story that I felt could have been easily expanded into a full novel. If you’re looking for fantasy that isn’t a rehash of Tolkein, this is a good place to start and I’m keen to read more of Yang’s work.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Novella, Uncategorized