Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders by Aliette de Bodard

The Big Peat

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Picture Paris. Picture a place there by the water's edge, surrounded by buildings that have gone nine rounds with a very angry magician who cheapshots, and picture the interplay between guttering lights, prowling shadows, and the sheen of pollution on the water.

Above the water, it is ruled by Fallen Angels, creatures of magnificence and brilliance. Below is the realm of the Rong, Annamite (Vietnamese) water spirits. They mostly hold each other in mutual contempt, seeing each other as the alien, totally different, yet they do share a ruthless respect for power; the power of social mores, of rules, and of sheer naked strength and intimidation. Kindness is an uncommon currency here.

Now picture the sort of man who might belong to both worlds and not be at home in either.

This man is Thuan, a Rong Prince who had previously been sent off in an alliance marriage to Asmodeus, Fallen head of House Hawthorn. Thuan is a thoroughly decent young type indeed, full of ideals and morals. Now he's returning home for Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year). I'm sure the smart among you can look at the title and work out what he thinks he's returning to, and what he's actually returning to.

Let me avoid misleading the reader though. The feasts and murders aren't the important part of this novella (I believe it's only 120 pages). The important part of this is Thuan and his relationships. I've made a number of comparisons for Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders but the best one is probably The Goblin Emperor - this is a young(ish) man's personal development in a moral environment he doesn't agree with.

Another point on which I could be misleading readers - this book is set in the same world as De Bodard's Dominions of the Fallen series and both Thuan and Asmodeus are major characters there. This novella isn't a true standalone. However, nor is it tied into continuity and only readable for those who've read DotF (although in my opinion, why wouldn't you?). What's more, there's a notable tonal shift and a slight setting shift that might mean this works with readers who didn't love DotF. The main series happens mainly in the Fallen's realm; this book is entirely in the Rong's domain. And tonally, DotF trod grim, dramatic ground in a similar manner to Dickinson's The Traitor or Jemisin's Dreamblood or maybe even GGK's Lions of Al-Rassan. This book has a more intimate, warmer feel to it, like Mercedes Lackey co-authored a book with Mark Lawrence - or Addison as noted, or later Pratchett when not being comedic. Incidentally, this tonal shift goes off seamlessly.

Well. Nearly seamlessly. The tonality worked great for me, but there's a few prose adjustments too - this book is more casual, with a few modernisms slipped in. I didn't hate them but I didn't love them and it always took me out of the book for a moment.

That's the only real criticism I have. I know there are some things that people will not appreciate. I've sort of touched on most of them, but I'll expand on one, namely that there's a lot of idea hinted at in the blurb, and obviously it can't all make it into the 120 pages. Anyone who was really jonesing for that murder mystery will be disappointed; come for Thuan's relationships instead.

Thuan and his relationships are fun. I'll freely admit I'm probably not the ideal audience for Thuan but I still had a lot of fun. What gives Thuan an arc here is the murky waters of his ignorance about the true nature of his home, personified most by the Rong Van (who is sent to distract Thuan and Asmodeus and becomes an ally), and the allure of easy solutions, personified by Asmodeus (a masterpiece of barbed wit). The combination means he ends up deeper than he realised when he agrees to find the murderer; he has to fight to stay true to himself as well as to survive. And it's all done with elegant prose, often witty and snarky, sometimes a little dark, that portrays Thuan and his world in very human terms. And entertaining. And fun.

Ultimately, that's what Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders. It's a fun romp, a Fantasy of Manners that walks the edge between comedy and drama with aplomb where you can cheer for a basically good person. There's a tasty little package about composite identities there too, a slightly bitter core to the chocolate coating. I imagine the most consistent criticism will be readers wishing it was longer and really, what higher compliment can you pay a book?

I received an ARC from Aliette de Bodard in exchange for an honest review - thanks! To find out more about her books, visit her home page and to buy this one, it's out now in e-book and physical format.
 
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