It feels like everyone’s been buzzing about this one and they were right!
I’ve been in love with the cover ever since I first saw it, I loved the concept and not gonna lie, the idea that there are (almost) no men in this book is a nice change.
Fire burns bright and has a long memory….
Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace.
Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions.
Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?
Trigger warnings: abuse, violence, suggested sexual abuse
How do I word this. I just??? fucking love it???
This was a short read, about 2h (I’m a slow reader), but lots of content to enjoy and feelings to unpack. I’ve read Aliette de Bodard’s stuff before and there’s no doubt she’s great at short stories, but so far I’ve enjoyed her medium-size writing more. Both the novella at the end of Of Wars etc. , In The Vanishers Palace and The Tea Master and the Detective. With a preference for her fantasy, so this was definitely one I was really looking forward to.
And it did not disappoint.
As advertised, there’s only one man (a eunuch), in a minor role. It was really enjoyable to see a world of mainly women, both in positions of power and not, cruel and not. I also had a moment of “where are the fathers” before I remembered the only women thing, and it reminded me of how people often wonder “where are the mothers” in Shakespeare plays, because the dude often forgot to include women. It’s a nice reversal.
It’s been discussed in better words by others (and by the author herself) but this novella really goes into the themes of abuse and colonialism, and it was really striking. Thanh thinks she’s found her way out of an abusive situation (with her mother) only to realise that maybe this is just walking into another more subtle abusive relationship. There was definitely a very realistic buildup in the way that abuse was portrayed (I don’t want to give away too much here) and the colonial parallels rang very true. Viet Nam is the clear inspiration for Bình Hải, Thanh’s country, and as a French person, it made me think about the fact that I know so little about the occupation of Viet Nam by France, and that’s not something I’m proud of.
I don’t know what to say about the relationships in the book without spoiling, but I’ll just say it’s good to see toxic sapphic relationships as well – ones where it’s clear the sapphic aspect isn’t the problem. And it offers sapphic alternatives too. Not just that, but the relationships made sense, Thanh’s reactions made sense and were so relatable, I loved Giang (and loved to hate everyone but those two),and the pacing and flow in the whole novella was… honestly something a lot of writers could learn from.
I’m really impressed by how well-rounded the characters are, how complex the themes in so short a book. I want more but realistically it’s perfect as it is and doesn’t need anything added to it. Just, wow.