Marjorie Liu’s 2021 The Tangleroot Palace is a collection of short stories.
Glancing at the “other works by the same author” list at the beginning of this volume reveals that I am woefully behind on my Marjorie Liu reading. Much of her backlist is urban fantasy/paranormal fantasy, which is not my jam, so I may never get caught up.
This collection’s cover is what first caught my eye and spurred a purchase; it’s also why it took me so long to get around to actually reading this book. The cover artist is Sana Takeda, who (as I am sure you know) provides the art for Liu and Takeda’s on-going Monstress. Every time I started to read this I thought, no, just one more volume of Monstress. And I put it aside.
Readers who have only read Monstress may expect grimmer fare than is contained within the book under review. Indeed, there’s a fair bit of hope in these stories, even if the path to hope is rocky. The characters are memorable and the prose rewarding. On a number of occasions, I was reminded of the late Tanith Lee, which is always a good way to get me to acquire more of an author’s works.
Introduction (The Tangleroot Palace) • essay
Perhaps the most intriguing revelation in this essay is that the author, having written, then forgets exactly what she has written. Assembling this collection was a process of discovery and re-evaluation for her. She also reveals that she places a high value on hope, which something I did not sense from her Monstress series.
“Sympathy for the Bones” • short fiction
A malevolent witch cheerfully pursues of a career as an assassin, assisted by an unwilling apprentice. The witch is certain that the apprentice is so bound by magic that rebellion will be impossible. Ha!
The Briar and the Rose • (2016) • novelette
A beautiful courtesan is in fact two people in one skin: a powerful sorceress and the helpless woman whose body she has commandeered. The courtesan’s bodyguard has long loved the helpless victim and wants to free her … but how?
“Call Her Savage” • short fiction
Imperialist Britain has found a way to create super-soldiers. The program doesn’t work reliably, but there are enough successes that Britain has been able to defeat and dominate China … so far. But Xing (whose enhancement inspired Britain’s program) has natural gifts that will allow her to confound the imperialists.
As with many fictional super-soldier programs, the odds of transforming any given voluntold into a superhuman are very low. Britain has a way to deal with this: they don’t give a shit about everyone the process cripples or kills. It just shows what one can accomplish with pluck and determination.
“The Last Dignity of Man” • short fiction
Superman-obsessed genius Alexander Lutheran models himself on Superman’s greatest foe, despite which Lex works hard to transform the world in positive ways. Personal growth is not on his to-do list, despite which it is forced on him.
“Personal growth” isn’t coyly misleading phrasing. Lex doesn’t become building-sized, as other superheroes or supervillains are able to do. He learns some useful personal lessons.
“Where the Heart Lives” • [Dirk & Steele • 0.5] • short fiction
Young Lucy is sent away by her kin to an unpromising post. There she discovers an occult knack she never knew she had. Good thing for Lucy, as her new post entangles her in a romantic ghost story that she is uniquely qualified to resolve.
This is a prequel to the Dirk & Steele stories. Readers need not have read those to enjoy this deft little gothic, which is good because I have not read them myself.
“After the Blood” • short fiction
The Big Death emptied cities and transformed hi-tech America into a memory. Never dependent on such luxuries, the Amish were well situated to survive the calamity. Good news for the Amish. Bad news for anyone who, for reasons beyond their control, does not fit nicely into Amish society. Even kind-hearted vampires may find coexistence nigh-impossible.
Is this the only Amish vampire story?
“Tangleroot Palace” • short fiction
Desperate to shore up his kingdom’s defenses, the old king hits on a straightforward solution: secure an alliance with the fearsome warlord by marrying his daughter Sally to the brute. Everyone is happy with this solution save for Sally, who is not at all interested in marrying a stranger. It’s off to the dark woods for Sally, where wonders and revelations await.
Alas, decades of reading fantasy meant that I spotted the twist ending about as soon as a particular character appeared.