Aliette de Bodard’s 2018 novel In the Vanishers’ Palace is a standalone secondary world fantasy (unless it’s SF; see comments).
The Vanishers used the world as their toy until they broke it. Having ruined the world, they absconded, leaving their former slaves and playthings behind to scrabble for life in the poisoned wreckage.
Yên’s village has no room for the useless or the weak. Her mother’s knack for healing magic pays her own way, but it’s not enough to support Yên. She is only a mediocre scholar. She has failed to pass the metropolitan exam and escape to the comparative security of the imperial court. It’s only a matter of time before Elder Tho finds a pretext to eject Yên from the village or feed her to the purifying artifact in the Plague Grove.
Giving Yên to a dragon to do with as the dragon wishes is also acceptable to Elder Tho.
Mother incurred a life debt to the dragon when in desperation Mother called on the dragon to cure Oahn, a patient beyond Mother’s ability to heal. The dragon had thought to take Oahn as payment. Elder Tho figures to discharge the debt by offering Yên in Oahn’s place.
The dragon is mildly peeved by the substitution. Still, the dragon has a use for a scholar, even one who did not pass the metropolitan exam. Elder Tho is permitted to escape punishment, while Yên vanishes with the dragon. Nobody in the village expects to see Yên again.
The dragon has a name, Vu Côn. Dragons are said to eat people, but Vu Côn doesn’t want Yên for food. Dragons are also said to take humans for less savoury purposes, but Vu Côn doesn’t want Yên as a sex slave (or rather, she does find Yên attractive but believes it would be wrong to use her in this way). Instead, she wants Yên to tutor Liên and Thông Vu, Vu Côn’s adopted children. This isn’t exactly a safe occupation but Yên does not live in a world with safe occupations. Tutoring is better than being eaten on the spot by the dragon.
Time has a way of changing things. Regarded simply as a dragon, Vu Côn is a fearsome figure. Looked at from a different perspective, Vu Côn is a person with reasonable concerns, a mother worried about her children, someone Yên might like. Or even learn to love. And Yên might find within herself wells of magical power she could had never guessed she owned. Happy endings all round! If only Yên were not terminally ill with a Vanisher contagion that even Vu Côn has no idea how to cure
I know some conservatives will find it astounding that a powerful person would not casually rape a weaker person. They will just have to accept this as the way this fantasy world works. It’s no more unbelievable than dragons and magic.
I called this fantasy but it could just as easily be seen as post-human science fiction, set in a world with sufficiently advanced science, in which bright but amoral tech whizzes played with reshaping life and matter. There were unforeseen consequences and the whizzes had to flee to another, unsullied world.
As to the dragons … well, we can retcon this as a few of the whizzes electing to transform into dragons. Wouldn’t you, if you could?
Two minor gripes:
Some of the language about what the Vanishers did to the world is repetitious.
Is it too much to ask that characters like Elder Tho be punished? Vo Con and company keep forgiving Elder Tho, but she never seems to learn better behavior. Every victim who dies at Elder Tho’s hands is the fault of the people who persist in giving Elder Tho a pass on her sins.
It was purely coincidental that I read this more or less back to back with A Study in Honor. It was interesting that both Holmes and Vu Côn casually manipulate the lives of those around them, Both are convinced they know better than everyone else; neither can be bothered to provide explanations. But Holmes has escaped any punishment for treating other people as possessions, while Vu Côn’s machinations blow up in her face, putting everyone she values at risk.
One of these characters will learn better and it won’t be Holmes. Vu Côn shows some awareness of the feelings and rights of others already; it’s a foundation she builds on. Note that she didn’t order Yên into her bed even though, in this world, the powerful do as they like.
There are reasons why I am a de Bodard completist. Her prose is as ever flawless, while the characters are individual and memorable. There’s no point, for example, to giving the dragon the choice to consume the maiden if the maiden is not someone about whom the reader cares.
If you’ve been looking for a Beauty and the Beast retelling in which the Beast actually has an inkling of decency, then this may be the Beauty and the Beast retelling for you.