Book Review: The Tangleroot Palace

The Tangleroot Palace: Stories
by Marjorie Liu
Fantasy/Short Stories
256 pages
Expected publication: June 15, 2021 by Tachyon Publications

A young woman must pay a terrible price if she wants to gain her freedom in ‘Sympathy for the Bones’. A warrior woman falls in love with a beautiful woman whose true nature emerges just once a week in ‘The Briar and the Rose’. A woman enhanced with superhuman abilities races against time and the British navy to help save her people in ‘Call Her Savage’. A lonely man lives the life of a comic villain, but has the heart of a hero in ‘The Last Dignity of Man’. A girl whose family sent her away to be the maid in a strange household learns that life is infinitely stranger– and more frightening– than she imagined, but that there may be a place for her in this unsettling house in ‘Where the Heart Lives’. After a horrifying plague destroys civilization, a woman fights to keep her land safe and prevent the love of her life from either being destroyed by the transformation he is undergoing, or by his own family in ‘After the Blood’. And in the final tale of Marjorie Liu’s short story collection, ‘Tangleroot Palace’, a princess seeks to not only save herself from an unwanted marriage but to also save her beloved father’s kingdom. To do this, she must enter the terrifying enchanted forest known as the Tanglewood where a dark queen lies sleeping.

It is generally assumed, when it comes to short story collections, that not every story will appeal to the reader. Such collections are, after all, a chance for a writer to experiment with subject or theme or try on a new genre for size without committing to a full novel or even novella. Fortunately, Marjorie Liu is an excellent storyteller, and in Tangleroot Palace, the worst that can be said of its weakest entries is that they aren’t quite as strong as the more compelling stories. ‘The Last Dignity of Man’, for example, is the story of a genius who has a moral compass and can’t quite be the supervillain he often imagines himself to be. While that concept is interesting, the story’s general ambiguity- and its coolness toward the main character- keeps everything at a distance, and when fateful events force him to make a decision with dire consequences, it’s hard to feel empathy for him, even when it’s obvious that he is a good person who is more than a little lost.

The title story, ‘Tangleroot Palace’ is also one of the weaker tales thanks to a series of events that leads to a satisfying conclusion by way of some very convenient coincidences along the way. But even that is a minor blip in an otherwise excellent set of stories that are all just as long as they need to be to build a world, develop characters, and then make the reader care about their fates in the span of twenty or thirty pages. The short story is an art form on its own, and not every author can flesh out characters and a world in a handful of pages. That Liu has also written a series of successful novels as well as an Eisner Award-winning graphic novel series (Monstress, along with illustrator Sana Takeda) shows that she has a complete grasp of storytelling, both in short and long forms. Not every author can do that, but Liu retains an elegant prose style, even while employing an economy of language that ensures that each sentence makes as much of an impact as it can. This makes for a set of stories that are engaging from the beginning, hold the attention through the end, and linger in the imagination long after the last pages have been turned.

The Tangleroot Palace is a collection of eerie little wonders, and is perfect for fans of other short-form storytelling masters like P. Djèlí Clark or Ted Chiang.

Thank you to NetGalley and Tachyon Publications for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion of the book.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Tangleroot Palace

  1. I’m not big on short stories, but I am looking forward to trying this one. They all sound interesting, and it’s good to know that they’re all pretty good.

  2. Glad to hear this is a solid collection. I used to subscribe to the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and I’ve missed it a bit since letting my subscription lapse. I couldn’t keep up with all the short stories each month but I do very much enjoy well told short stories, so having a collection like this is nice. I can read a story between novels and slowly over time finish it without the worry of trying to finish before next months issue comes out. 🙂

  3. Isn’t it funny how we can plow through 800 pages books, but a collection of short stories feels like such a big deal? I don’t subscribe to any magazines because I never get through them, even though their individual elements are relatively quick to read. I was happy to find that these stories (for the most part) were all extremely well-written and some of them were downright haunting.

  4. Pingback: Sunday Sum-Up: June 6, 2021 | Traveling in Books

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