An intense and emotional tale, set in a sci-fi world based on Vietnamese mythology. Yên is a young teacher, given to a dragon by her village in exchange for a healing. The dragon, Vu Côn, needs a teacher for her two children, to teach them the things she could not. Yèn and the dragon find a deep connection, and deep divisions. Yên's future seemingly rests in the scaly hands of the dragon. But this is a twisting, inconstant world, and things may not always be as they seem
The setting might be a fantasy world, with shape-shifting dragons, palaces with infinite rooms, spells and summonings, but it is also a world of gene-modding, isolation skins, and the remnants of technology so far beyond present-day that it becomes magic. A race called the Vanishers has broken the world and then departed, and those left behind must cope with the diseases and constructs they left behind. I hesitate to call it post-apocalyptic, because that belongs to a genre with certain expectations. Here, there is poverty and squalor in the ruins of a civilization, but one can also summon a dragon to beseech it to heal a dying child.
The Vietnamese mythology adds to alien nature of the world. It fits well to the fluid, non-euclidean spaces of the palace that the dragon inhabits. The imagery of trails of ink, calligraphed words flowing in shadows, and flowing rivers is evocative and rich. Scents – of tea, of cooking, of mold, of rivers – are often used to reflect the mood and emotion of a scene.
This is a rich and satisfying story, which addresses the difference between false power, such as that the village elders wield without wisdom or compassion, and the real powers that a dragon, or a teacher, may have.
I picked it up without reading the blurb that mentioned the Beauty and the Beast, and I didn't make that connection while reading it. I'm glad that I was able to read it without the preconceptions that linking it to the fairy tale will inevitably induce. I think it's stronger by itself.
About these recommendations
In this series, we bring you a selection of books that we enjoyed, and highlight the qualities that made them work for us.