Author: Marjorie Liu
Title: The Tangleroot Palace: Stories
Other: Short story collection
I’ve known Marjorie Liu as the author of Monstress, a dark fantasy graphic novel series with the wonderful art by Sana Takeda. I liked Monstress well enough to request Liu’s short stories collection from NG the moment I saw it there – just look at this cover! In hindsight, I might’ve been better served by gathering more intel on Liu’s work of fiction first. That’s not to say that the collection is irredeemably bad; most stories are inherently readable and subtly creepy in Liu’s trademark Monstress way, and there are a couple that are actually all right. As for the rest, however, ah – best see for yourself, below.
As usual, I offer here a short summary of each story, each scored separately, with an overall rating at the end.
Sympathy for the Bones 7/10
A nicely creepy voodoo (here called hoodoo) story, with dolls and gris-gris and the possession of one’s soul. The sewing aspect was what’s really drawn me to the story, and the spin on the usual witch-and-her-victim trope was interesting. In Liu’s stories men have no agency – and while in this one it made perfect sense, the issue of male agency clearly delineated in the conclusion in a wonderfully perverse way, the whole idea quickly turned into a tired, overused schtick in other stories.
The Briar and the Rose 4/10
A retelling of The Sleeping Beauty, with a completely unnecessary heaping of cringy. Here, men are actively stupid and spineless, the fabled prince is a masculine lesbian, and the princess’s body is inhabited and continuously sexually exploited and abused by an old powerful witch with some sort of sexual addiction. The Sleeping Beauty is creepy enough on its own, without such weird spins. The relationship here is quite sweet, actually, and I would enjoy it but for the plot. I know that those idealistic wishes of mine will never realize, but I just wish authors would have enough responsibility and presence of mind to read not only fairy tales but also their analyses – some really smart people already covered that ground, and better, and didn’t leave in their wake the lingering feeling of distaste.
Call Her Savage 1/10
A half-Chinese lesbian Captain America fights with British killing machines, bioengineered with the use of mystic power of crystal skulls. That in itself would be enough for a “WTF?” but that’s only the beginning. The British empire is portrayed, as usual, as bloodthirsty and ruthless (and that’s true, I’ve no beef with this), and its behavior is contrasted by the wonderfully wise and benevolent Chinese empire, which, known for its adherence to the maxim “Live and let live,” peacefully obtained large swathes of West coast of North America and entered into mutually beneficial treaties with Native Americans. Because of course. I don’t know which part is more offensive to me: the wilful selective blindness to history or the vengeful fantasy. I almost DNFed the whole collection at the end of this.
The Last Dignity of Man 6/10
A poor rich boy wants to become an archvillain because in his highly functioning but still somehow addled mind he figured that this would bring Superman into his world and into his life. Some apt commentary on the power of modern corporations, and examples of subtle, elegant writing, sparse yet meaningful, but the plot just doesn’t make sense.
Where the Heart Lives 5/10
This one is a tough one to judge. Evocative, flowing prose, again, and it possesses an interesting, fairytale-like premise, but ultimately turns out to be an inconsequential prequel/sequel to an already existing series of UF books by Liu I knew nothing about and didn’t care. After reading the story, I still don’t care. There are some wonderfully lush images of a haunted forest reminiscent of Uprooted, but the whole remains a less-than-subtle illustration of the simplistic belief that lack of love makes everything bad while love makes everything good. I mean, I agree with the sentiment that love is crucial in life, absolutely – but I would really like to see a bit more subtlety here. It’s not like this story is the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians, after all.
After the Blood 2/10
Amish vampires, rapists in the woods, and their boring guilt. A post-apocalyptic future somewhat resembling a cross between the UF of Ilona Andrews and Rebecca Roanhorse. Honestly, the main image I had was Al Yankovic’s Amish Paradise. This story is pretty long, more like a novella, and that length is felt. I guess it was supposed to evoke feelings of oppression and danger, but what I got from it was a load of angsty buried drama, and a dramatic overflow of words. The only oppressive feeling present here is boredom. Oh, and a bit of guilty vengeful fantasy – after all, it seems a theme in American UF to showcase female strength by having the protagonists kill their rapists. “The trees told me to do it” is a new rationalization, however.
The Tangleroot Palace 6/10
A fairytale-like novella, with chapters, a desperate king, a headstrong princess, a famous warlord, and another haunted magical forest with an imprisoned evil queen, who must be confronted once every generation by the descendants of the witches that defeated her long ago. Guess who would that be? That evil queen part is really lame and makes no sense whatsoever, but whatever – by authorial fiat the protagonists needed to go to the forest and face their fears and bind their fates together. That said, apart from this it was a nice, sweet story, with likeable and quite memorable characters I’d be happy to read more about, so if you’re willing to overlook the glaring holes in logic and common sense, it’s actually enjoyable.
All in all, this collection boasts of strong feminist vibes, strong and really well done LGBT+ representation, fairytale inspirations, and acres of haunted forests. All of it is very tame and mainstream, however, bordering on mushy, with just a tad of uncanny here and there to spice up the comfortable popcorn read. If you feel like this is something for you, you may quite enjoy it. For me, it was unfortunately a largely forgettable experience, the stories laying bare the deficiencies of Liu’s storytelling I was willing to overlook earlier in the Monstress comic books because of Takeda’s art.
I have received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.