One of the reasons I anxiously anticipate every new Aliette de Bodard release is because I can just assume there will be casual queerness somewhere in every story. (Note: I’m not entirely fond of the wording “incidental lesbians” that has become popular in lesfic circles because I’m not interested in either the characters or their orientations being “incidental”--I want them to be essential to the story, just not in a way that makes orientation or identity itself the essence of the story. For me “casual queerness” better evokes the thing that makes me happy.)
In the Vanishers’ Palace not only has casual queerness, it has casual Vietnamese-rooted fantasy in a post-apocalyptic, post-colonial setting that evokes the experience of having had your entire world and culture trampled and ruined, without direct reference to specific historic events. But that’s only the context, not the story itself.
Yên is a failed scholar, trying to help her mother heal their fellow villagers of the myriad plagues left by the genetic tinkering of the departed Vanishers. Vu Côn is a dragon--a shape-shifting river spirit. Her healing assistance can be begged for a price. When Yên’s mother heals the daughter of an important family with Vu Côn’s help, her own life is that price and Yên is driven both by filial piety and despair to demand to take her place.
As the story is billed as a Beauty and the Beast take-off, one may easily (and correctly) guess where this is going, but beyond the theme of falling in love with a frightening creature, don’t expect the plot to follow the traditional lines. The in-story forces that keep Yên and Vu Côn at arms’ length rise out of the cultural setting: the social dynamics of status and respect, the power differential when supernatural creatures are involved, but with not even a hint that the same-sex aspect is a relevant issue. That’s what I mean by “casual” queerness. And as we delve deeper into the looming dangers of the Vanishers’ palace--a warped space of impossible geometries and fatal traps--the fantasy trappings merge seamlessly with science-fictional ones to create a genre that defies categories.
The happy ending never feels guaranteed, despite genre expectations, making it feel well-earned. In sum: I loved loved loved this novella, both for the exquisite writing that I’ve come to expect from de Bodard, and for the way I feel seen and included as a reader.