The Tangleroot Palace is the new, debut short story collection from multi-award winning author Marjorie Liu, who is best know for her Monstress graphic novel series. It comprises six short stories and a novella, all of which are beautifully written, deeply engaging, and full of wonder and strong female characters. In “Sympathy for Bones,” a young voodoo magic apprentice challenges her mentor. In “The Briar and the Rose” two lovers team up against a witch who wants to rule a kingdom. “Call Her Savage” is an alternative history that pits a woman and her former childhood friend and lover against each other to save the Chinese Empire from the British. In “The Last Dignity of Man,” a megalomaniac scientist meets a man who is down on his luck and unwittingly hands over the horrors of his experiment to government. In “Where the Heart Lives” a poor young woman is adopted by a kind woman and her mute helper, and must learn about love to gain her freedom from a witch. “After the Blood” is a postapocalyptic tale about a mutated couple trying to save themselves and their family from a plague of zombies. And the novella, “The Tangleroot Palace,” features a young princess who runs away from her home to avoid marrying a warlord only to get trapped in the Tangleroot Forest with a witch. All of the stories feature empathetic characters and high conflict, which will keep you turning the pages until the end.
Perhaps the phrase “beautiful prose” is a bit overused and vague, but it is definitely applicable here, not because the language is flowery or “poetic” but because it vivid and concrete. In all of these stories, Liu takes readers somewhere new and strange and fully immerses them in stories deeply imbued with the old fashioned sense of wonder that is so fundamental not just to fantasy escapism but also to bringing imagination to life and showing old things in new ways. This is especially evident when Liu brings the reader into the woods in “Where the Heart Lives,” “After the Blood,” and “The Tangleroot Palace.” “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep” as the poet Robert Frost wrote, and Liu brings that darkness and depth alive, but the woods here are not lovely—they are strange and forbidding, full of mysterious horrors that await the unwitting adventurer. I am reminded of the stunning, World Fantasy Award-winning novel Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock in these portrayals of mysterious and terrifying forests. Like Holdstock, Lui brings the woods to life with lively details that evoke mood and emotion rather than trying to tell readers what they should feel.
Liu brings her characters to life similarly with detail and story, showing us complex individuals in crises and allowing the characters to drive the conflicts rather than the other way around. Characters like the Duelist in “The Briar and Rose,” a woman who looks like man and finds that only love can release her from a life of death, challenge readers by showing them something new, even if it comes from the tales of old. Alexander in “The Last Dignity of Man,” makes us question the relative values of ambition and love. In the titular novella, Sally, the young princess, must find love despite the stories that are told of her lover. She is the epitome of adolescent rebellion until love shows it is more powerful than the stories. Amanda in “After the Blood,” tests our perceptions of love and forgiveness. If you think a lot of this is about love, you are correct, but my favorite character in The Tangleroot Palace, is Amanda’s lover Henry, a mutated zombie who lives by ingesting blood, often doing so by simply tearing the throat out of his victim with his teeth. He, too, must re-find love, both for Amanda and for his family.
Love, its challenges and its power, is a very strong theme here, but another theme is the power of story, which is predominant not only in the novella, but in the other stories as well, particularly in “The Briar and the Rose,” which shows us how stories bring wisdom, but also pain. “The Briar and the Rose,” is loosely based on the “Sleeping Beauty” fairy tale. In it the Duelist goes in search of stories to find wisdom, but eventually finds love is even more powerful. And after her crisis is resolved as best it can be, her story and the stories in which it is embedded live on in merchants’ tales and other stories of the kind she once sought.
But is it Grimdark? After all, that’s why we’re here, right? Well, I hope some of you, at least, read a variety of good fantasy literature, and if you do, you’ll probably want to check out The Tangleroot Palace. Nevertheless, there is definitely some dabbling in the realm of grimdark here, especially in “The Last Dignity of Man,” in which Alexander finds that his moral compass is not as reliable as he’d hoped, in “After the Blood,” in which Henry must make certain sacrifices to keep himself alive and must even wonder if keeping himself alive is worth the sacrifices he makes, and in “Call Her Savage,” in which Xing must choose between bad options. Overall, though, I would not necessarily call this a grimdark collection since a couple of the stories have decidedly happy endings, but I would call it a collection worth reading for any person who loves a good story well told. Liu is a top notch storyteller who will immerse you as a reader and inspire you as a writer. I highly recommend you give it a go.