“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their Inspirations and Influences. In this feature, we invite writers to talk about their new books, older titles, and their writing overall.
In the Vanishers’ Palace is Aliette de Bodard’s latest offering, a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast, where they are both women and the Beast is a dragon. Set in a ruined universe inspired by Vietnamese folklore, where scholar-magicians and spirits walk the earth, the novella is out now! To celebrate it, we have Aliette over to talk about the inspirations behind the work.
I wrote In The Vanishers’ Palace because I wanted to argue with “Beauty and the Beast”.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the fairytale. I read the abridged Beaumont version as a child, and then went on to read and watch various retellings, including the Disney one. I still get that shiver of anticipation when Beauty meets the Beast for the first time and the familiar story unfolds beat by beat.
Much as I love it, I also recognize that it’s textbook skeevy consent: can one really fall in love with one’s jailer, in such a massively unequal relationship in terms of power? Is a declaration of love forced by the Beast being on death’s door really given out of free will?
I wanted to write a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” that tackled these subjects head on. I wanted to keep the basic premise: a woman is given against her will to a beast (yes, Beauty chooses to stay, but the alternative is the Beast kills her father. Again, not much free will there), and they fall in love. But I wanted to discuss consent. I wanted to have both of them recognize that it couldn’t be given, and abstain from starting a relationship despite the obvious physical desire between them. I wanted Beauty to be free before anything could happen. And that even when she was free, the massive power imbalance between them would still remain and need to be negotiated.
I chose to make both Beauty and the Beast women in my retelling: I wanted to create a universe where queerness was completely normalised (in addition to that relationship, there are also several non-binary characters). One particular trope I wanted to avoid was the lesbian or bi woman in an f/f relationship dying tragically–I’ve seen it so many times, particularly in media, that it feels like being punched in the face repeatedly, so I wanted to make sure I went nowhere near it.
The other thing I wanted to do was put more of the fairytales I read as a child into the retelling. I set this in a world infused by Vietnamese folklore: a magical timeless land of clever scholars, fishermen bringing up dragon princesses in their nets, farmers returning to their rice fields after the war… So naturally I made Yên, the Beauty character, an impoverished scholar who had failed the metropolitan examinations (passing the examinations and becoming a government official was the goal most scholars hungered for). And I made Vu Côn, the Beast analogue, into a rồng, a dragon spirit tasking herself with healing a broken world. Because dragons in Vietnamese mythology are benevolent, I needed a reason why Vu Côn would have become so feared: I imagined that a race called the Vanishers had treated the world and everyone in it as their playthings, and then departed through magical gates, leaving mortals and spirits struggling to survive–and dragons such as Vu Côn with the responsibility of dispensing killing the people infected with one of the Vanishers’ numerous plagues. That was how she got her frightening reputation. And then, to throw the two of them together, I imagined that Vu Côn took Yên as payment for a debt incurred by Yên’s village, setting the stage for conflict (and yes, eventually for sparks to fly!)
The final strand of the story was the palace, the eponymous location that is central to the novel. For various plot reasons I made Vu Côn live, not underwater like the dragons of myth, but in a palace that had belonged to her former masters the Vanishers. I needed something that would be strange and terrifyingly wonderful for that building: in the end, I chose to merge traditional Vietnamese palatial architecture (particularly the citadel of Huế) with the work of Escher, which provided the dizzying endlessly receding perspectives, the fluid changes of walls to floor and ceiling to staircases, and all the scenes where geometry got twisted and pulled into weird shapes.
In the end, In the Vanishers’ Palace is both a retelling and an answer to the traditional Beauty and the Beast, taking what I love about the original and giving it my own spin. With a dragon.
(because obviously dragons make everything better!)
Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, as well as numerous short stories which have garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and two British Science Fiction Association Awards. Her space opera books include The Tea Master and the Detective, a murder mystery set on a space station in a Vietnamese Galactic empire, inspired by the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Recent works include the Dominion of the Fallen series, set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which comprises The House of Shattered Wings (Roc/Gollancz, 2015 British Science Fiction Association Award, Locus Award finalist), and its standalone sequel The House of Binding Thorns (Ace, Gollancz).
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