If you know Marjorie Liu through her acclaimed graphic novel series Monstress and you happen to like said graphic novel series, then this collection is a treat you don’t want to miss. I went into it with no particular expectations – I admit the Sana Takeda cover is what made me request a review copy and I don’t regret a thing. This collection has something for everyone, there are science fiction stories, secondary world fantasies, military stories, a post apocalyptic tale, and a retold fairy tale. It is seriously good, you guys!
Thanks to Tachyon Publications for providing an e-ARC of this collection. It is much appreciated, especially since it turned out to be such a great book. 😉
THE TANGLEROOT PALACE
by Marjorie Liu
Published: Tachyon Publications, 15th June 2021
eBook: 256 pages
My rating: 8/10
Opening line: The funeral was in a bad place, but Martha Bromes never did much care about such things, and so she put her husband into a hole at Cutter’s, and we as her family had to march up the long stone track into the hills to find the damn spot, because the only decent bits of earth in all that place were far deep in the forest, high into the darkness.
New York Times bestseller and Hugo, British Fantasy, Romantic Times, and Eisner award-winning author of the graphic novel, Monstress, Marjorie Liu leads you deep into the heart of the tangled woods. In her long-awaited debut story collection, dark, lush, and spellbinding short fiction you will find unexpected detours, dangerous magic, and even more dangerous women.
Briar, bodyguard for a body-stealing sorceress, discovers her love for Rose, whose true soul emerges only once a week. An apprentice witch seeks her freedom through betrayal, the bones of the innocent, and a meticulously-plotted spell. In a world powered by crystal skulls, a warrior returns to save China from invasion by her jealous ex. A princess runs away from an arranged marriage, finding family in a strange troupe of traveling actors at the border of the kingdom’s deep, dark woods.
Concluding with a gorgeous full-length novella, Marjorie Liu’s first short fiction collection is an unflinching sojourn into her thorny tales of love, revenge, and new beginnings.
It’s a given with any short fiction collection that some stories will appeal more to certain readers than others, and this was the case with The Tangleroot Palace as well. But I have to say right away that there was only one story that didn’t work for me whereas all the others were at least very good. Maybe it’s because I didn’t know what to expect that I was so very impressed with this collection but I think it’s just the fact that Marjorie Liu is incredibly talented and this book gives a taste of all the things she’s capable of.
She easily goes from horror to fairy tale to post-apocalyptic paranormal, and why not throw in some superhero-inspired story, a handful of zobies and a defiant princess in there. All of these stories have been published before elsewhere but I highly recommend this collection, even if you’ve read one or two of its tales before.
Sympathy for the Bones (4/5 stars)
The opening story took me completely by surprise and proceded to knock my socks off. Although it’s really not long, from the very beginning, there is this dark atmosphere, this feeling that there is more underneath the surface. It’s about a young girl who has lost her parents a while ago and now lives with and is sort of apprenticed to a witch woman. This woman sews dolls which she uses to hurt or kill people, depending on what the job demands. But there are rules to this magic which are fun to learn about. And there is also a lot more to our protagonist than first meets the eye. I loved this story so much!
Briar and Rose (3.5/5 stars)
This was the only story I had read previously in the anthology The Starlit Wood although I didn’t remember any details. It’s a spin on Sleeping Beauty, one that puts women center stage, and not only in the role of the villain. The two eponymous protagonists are great characters that defy stereotypes and although the ending wasn’t as surprising or epic as I would have liked, it’s a great story that incorporates some of the darker aspects of the original tale without drifting off into grimdark territory.
Call Her Savage (2/5 stars)
This is the story that didn’t work for me, mostly because I found it confusing and felt its plot just didn’t fit into this short format. There is a whole lot of world building here but, unfortunately, by the time I had figured everything out enough to understand what was going on, the story was over. Not knowing for a long time who the characters are, what war they are fighting in, who is allied to whom, didn’t help. It’s possible I missed some clues early on, but I just felt lost for the majority of the story. When I did start to enjoy it, I had reached the end.
The Last Dignity of Man (4.5/5 stars)
Gaaah, I loved this so much! It’s about a man named Alexander Lutheran who is the genius billionaire owner of a tech company and thus identifies with Lex Luthor of Superman fame a little too much. The company’s latest experiment is creating worms that eat waste, to be put into the sewers and literally deal with the shit the city can’t handle. I don’t want to tell you any more about this story because it is so very excellent, you should enjoy it for yourselves. But let’s just say there are layers to it. On the one hand, there is the plot with the worms which is super cool. But on the other hand, it’s about Alexander’s inner life, his personal struggles, about morality and power, about love and true friendship. I just adored this!
Where the Heart Lives (4/5 stars)
This was a lovely, atmospheric ghost story turned fairy tale. It’s about people who are outsiders because they are different from the others, it’s about a girl finding a new family away from a home that doesn’t want her. It’s got some of the greatest romantic tension I’ve read in a story this short. And it turns out, it’s a sort of prequel to Liu’s series of paranormal Dirk & Steele novels which I didn’t know about but am now very interested in. Despite those covers.
After the Blood (3.5/5 stars)
This one started out a bit confusing because it seems to take place in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by zombies/vampires. The Amish are now the most powerful people in America (or at least the ones that survived the easiest because they can do without techonlogy, they know how to farm, and so on) and this is the story of a young woman with a strange gift and a large amount of cats, trying to make a life for herself. Her and two male protagonists, one of which is decidedly not human anymore, are made to feel more than unwelcome in their home. To me, this felt like a great beginning to a novel. It has a creepy, mysterious atmosphere, you want to find out what is going on, how the protagonists came to be who and where they are, and what happens next. As a story on its own, it worked okay, but I honestly would have loved to read a full novel where this was just one chapter.
Tangelroot Palace (4.5/5 stars)
The final piece of this collection is a novella that is part feminist fairy tale, part love story, and part the perfect story for my younger self. Sally is a princess but she prefers planting flowers to needlepoint. She doesn’t care that she smells of manure, she has no interest in being lady-like, she’d rather be useful. However, when her father the king finds himself in the precarious situation of almost losing his kingdom, an alliance with the feared Warlord is in order. And what better way than marrying off your only daughter to the reputed brute?
Sally is having none of it and promptly runs away on a quest to the Tangleroot Forest, a dangerous, mysterious, and feared forest that none dare enter. It is said to return people changed or not at all. But Sally’s mother – before she died – went into that forest, so there must be answers to Sally’s problems in there.
I loved every part of this story. The plucky princess, the dangerous, creepy feeling of Tangleroot, the mystery behind its magic, and especially the friendship and love story that happens along the way.
Overall, this is an excellent collection that convinced me that I have to read more by Marjorie M. Liu. The way she writes romance especially vibed with me. Understated without any cheesy declarations, the feelings between her characters usually come across through glances or gestures, through people saving each other’s lives, or making sacrifices for the person they love. It also helps that many of these tales have this fairy tale feeling to them, whether they specifically retell a certain tale – as “Briar and Rose” does – or are simply set in a world with magic in it, like in Tangleroot Palace.
I was also impressed with the writing itself. Liu can do fairy tale-esque really well, but her more horror/gothic style stories also conveyed atmosphere so easily, it felt like I was in these creepy places, seeing the knarled trees, hearing those ravens caw. The only critique I have is that some stories don’t give enough information at the start to be fully enjoyed. It takes a few pages to understand the world we’re in and by that time, the story is almost over. In a novel, it’s okay to throw your readers straight into the action and let them figure out the background information later. A short story simply doesn’t offer enough time to fill in all the blanks in time to enjoy the rest of the story. But that’s really a minor point and it only happened in a couple of stories. All things considered, I would put this collection into any SFF fan’s hands.
MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent