Maya C. James Reviews The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie Liu

The Tangleroot Palace, Marjorie Liu (Tachyon 978-161696-352-1, $16.95, 256 pp, tp) June 2021. Cover by Sana Takeda.

Dangerous women and magic lurk in Marjorie Liu’s The Tangleroot Palace, a collection of short fiction that spans a variety of subgenres. In these imagined worlds, the bones of the innocent bring liberation to fledg­ling witches, crystal skulls power war machines, and the Amish lead post-apocalyptic villages through nights of terror (still not sure one sentence properly captures this story). Liu’s dynamic writ­ing style and clever story concepts are the real standouts – she is just as capable of producing evocative, romantic writing as she is pounding out gritty, electric scenes of violent revenge. Her characters range from innocent damsels in distress to Lex-Luthor wannabes. While some characters are more compelling than others, they all face a similar choice: to jump headlong into the thorns of romance and adventure, or wither away in their current state of being.

As a dark fantasy collection, the clear standout is the sapphic retelling of “The Briar and the Rose”, which emerged from the distasteful and demeaning tradition of Sleeping Beauty in which the princess is abused and impregnated in her unwilling sleep. Originally published in the The Starlit Wood, “The Briar and the Rose” focuses on the Duelist, one of the most feared warriors in the world, and Rose, a beautiful woman whose soul is stolen by the Duelist’s master for six out of seven days a week. On this seventh day, the Duelist comes to know Rose, not as her master’s puppet, but as a beautiful, intelligent woman will­ing to fight for her freedom. The romance between the aptly named women is a gentle, loving one that made me deeply care for the characters and the outcome of their story. Swoon-worthy and well-paced, it captured everything I hoped to get out of the collection: crafty characters forging their own destinies regardless of the thorny situations and intimidating characters that stand in their paths.

The collection’s tone shifted after a strong opening, however, and I no longer knew what to expect. “The Last Dignity of Man”, for example, is a bizarre addition that I wanted to love for its absolutely wild premise (strange story short: a man obsessed with comic book villain Lex Luthor searches for a Superman to save/love him). Much more in line with the SF body horror subgenre, it was discomfiting to read this story without a strong or campy enough ending. The protagonist’s strange motivations were not chaotic enough to keep my attention, nor was the longing in the story wistful enough to elicit any strong emotional response. While a mismatch of expectations and outcomes of fiction is not necessarily a terrible thing, this fell a bit short. A collection with this cover title promises human and faerie mischief, not lonely millionaires and post-apocalyptic Amish villages (though I still love the premises of both of these ideas).

“Call Her Savage” is an example where Liu deviated from my expectations and won me over. Liu centers this story in an alternate his­torical timeline where China “found” the West coast of the United States and established a colony of sorts there. With the onset of a war between Britain and China, the two superpowers use crystal skull-powered machines to engage in battles across the war-torn coast. Our protagonist, Xing, a formerly retired super soldier, signs on for a suicidal mission. The fight scenes and tension between Xing and the antagonist did not capture my attention in the same way the worldbuilding did: Skull crystals, dating back to an unnamed era of his­tory, carry miraculous powers here, and serve as a proxy for a country’s strength (the more skulls the merrier). Our main character is somehow connected to these crystals, but this idea seems unresolved by the story’s end. The world-building was so expansive that it seemed to burst the seams of the short fiction format – I would have loved to see this as a longer story, or left out of the collection to become its own novel.

Liu really has some fabulous concepts here. As a gift to her readers, she also includes notes on her short stories, explaining the time, place, and writing prompts that inspired them. Providing this additional context is a nice touch and a treat at the end of each story.

Rounding off the collection is the full-length novella, “The Tangleroot Palace”. Originally published in 2009, this tale follows a young princess who escapes marriage from a warlord by stealing away into an enchanted forest. Unsur­prisingly, her plans do not go as they planned. I’ll leave out any potential spoilers, but it was a fine way to end the collection.

Overall, The Tangleroot Palace is a solid short fiction collection with memorable story concepts and a unique voice throughout each weird and fantastical tale.

Maya C. James is a graduate of the Lannan Fellows Program at Georgetown University, and full-time student at Harvard Divinity School. Her work has appeared in Star*Line, Strange Horizons, FIYAH, Soar: For Harriet, and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center Blog, among others. She was recently long listed for the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize (2019), and featured on a feminist speculative poetry panel at the 2019 CD Wright Women Writer’s Conference. Her work focuses primarily on Afrofuturism, and imagining sustainable futures for at-risk communities. You can find more of her work here, and follow her on Twitter: @mayawritesgood.

This review and more like it in the July 2021 issue of Locus.

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