A stand-alone fantasy/SF novella.

Publication year: 2018
Format: Audio
Running time: 6 hours 44 minute
Narrator: Nancy Wu

Yên has wanted to be a scholar but when she failed her university entrance exams, she lost her passion, even though she’s hoping to retake the exams in a couple of years. Now, she’s just helping her mother, the village healer. But they live in a village where only the most useful members are allowed to survive. Because this world was used and abused by beings called the Vanishers who have now gone. They left behind an planet filled with diseases and pollution. The healers, like Yên’s mother Kim Ngoc, are doing what they can but their magic is too weak heal everyone.

When Yên’s friend falls ill, the only way for Kim to heal her is to summon the local dragon. The dragon comes in the form of a noble but cold woman. She heals Yên’s friend but in return demands a life. She expects to get the girl she healed but the village elders consider Yên to be far more expendable. By threatening Yên’s mother, they get her to volunteer.

Yên expects the dragon to kill her. But to her amazement, the dragon has two children who require a tutor. Yên agrees. She fears the dragon but is also attracted to her. The children are unruly but polite to her. The palace exists in a spirit realm and is shifting around her. It has rooms where she shouldn’t go because she could die there. And the dragons themselves have many secrets.

This story has a very complex background and it allows de Bodard to explore not just the issues of colonization but also of consent, racism, and power. The dragon, Vu Côn, turns out to be rather ethical (perhaps not surprisingly) and she tries to teach the children about the ethics of consent between people who have very different levels of power. She’s also a healer and is combating the diseases (or viruses as she sees them). On the other hand, she has a lot of power and is used to wielding it without consulting anyone else. And yet, when the Vanishers were on this planet, Vu Côn and the other dragons were their servants. So, she has seen the power imbalance on both sides.

Again, the background is very complex and needs a careful reading to pick out just what’s happening. I’m hoping de Bodard will explore this fascinating world some more. Also, there are things that aren’t explained enough, such as the magic system.

This is often pitched as a Beauty and a Beast retelling which made me uncomfortable because that story always has too much Stockholm syndrome to me. Clearly, de Bodard knows that baggage and is circumventing it by talking carefully about consent. Excellent!