The Tangleroot Palace (Marjorie Liu) – Book Review

The Tangleroot Palace is the latest anthology story collection from Titan Books, but rather than bringing together a host of different authors Titan have decided to shine the spotlight on Marjorie Liu, the Hugo, and Eisner award winning author. In this lovely collection Liu presents readers with several short stories from across her career that showcase her creative and engaging fantasy work.

There are several stories in The Tanggleroot Palace which feel so oddly similar to our own world they could easily be taking place in a time we know, just out of sight. Others, however, take place in strange fantasy worlds, alternate histories, and even possible futures.

The first story in the collection is ‘Sympathy for the Bones’, which follows a young woman who lives with the local town witch, learning how to work her magic to assist the older woman. Despite having been raised by this woman, the young girl feels no love for her, having suffered at her hand over the years. Using the skills the old woman has taught her, she hatches a plan to be rid of the witch forever. This story felt like the perfect introduction to this collection, slowly drawing the reader in and introducing the more magical elements slowly as it went. It had some creepy and dark moments, and painted a wonderfully morally grey lead.

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‘The Briar and the Rose’ is a twist on the Sleeping Beauty story, where the bodyguard of a powerful and influential woman discovers that her mistress is actually a witch. Not only that, but she’s possessing the body of the woman she’s residing inside, and that she needs to ‘sleep’ every week to maintain that hold. However, when she sleeps the body’s real inhabitant is able to wake up, and the two women form a strong relationship. This was a wonderful queer romance story, with an inventive twist on the traditional tale. Very quickly the story set the stakes with the evil witch, and the desperate lovers, and before you knew it you were rooting for these two women to find a way of escaping from the curse that keeps them apart.

‘Call Her Savage’ is a story that takes place in an alternate history, where magic and crystal skulls have been used to advance society in wildly different directions to our own. Set during a war between China and Britain, we follow a Chinese super-soldier, a woman who has been granted super-human powers and abilities, who must sneak into enemy territory to save an important figure. The story dealt with themes of betrayal, trauma and morality in war in surprisingly detailed ways for such a short story. Liu does a ton of world-building here too, and it very much felt like this could be part of a much bigger series.

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‘The Last Dignity of Man’ is Liu’s comic book story, a field in which she’s actually won awards. It tells the story of a rich businessman who’s obsessed with Superman. He wants Superman to be real, and would give anything for it to happen, and so sets out to become Lex Luthor in the hopes that being Superman’s greatest villain will somehow force the hero the world needs to become real. This is perhaps the strangest story in the bunch, and whilst Alexander Lutheran’s motives and way of thinking don’t make complete sense, you get the sense that they’re not really supposed to, as over the course of this slightly bizarre tale you really get to know him, and see how much help the man really needs from those in his life. Despite the weirdness, it ended up being an incredibly sweet story.

‘Where the Heart Lives’ felt the most fairy-tale-like story of the bunch, and really leans into the almost dream-like nature of magical stories. It tells the story of a young woman who travels to a magical forest, and who begins to live with a group of people with strange powers, and a connection to the spirit that lives deep within the forest that surrounds them. There’s a good sense of mystery to this story, and it felt like a full YA fantasy story condensed down, with all of the ‘will they won’t they’ stuff removed and a focus on the main events. Because of that, whilst it was good it did feel a bit light, and is a story I’d have enjoyed seeing being given more room.

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‘After the Blood’ is actually something of a prequel to some of Liu’s other work, but still stands on its own as an interesting story, set in a future where a deadly disease has destroyed most of humanity, and those left behind have had to use more old fashioned skills to get by. Oh, and the virus has also turned some of the survivors into supernatural beings, so there are monster and Amish vampires. It’s a fun story, one that I think doesn’t quite give enough information to be great as there were times I was left wondering why things were happening, but overall it was an enjoyable tale, and definitely left me wanting to read the series it ties into.

The final story in the book is the longest, the titular ‘Tangleroot Palace’. This story introduces us to a young princess who has grown up in her father’s castle able to do whatever she wants. She’s pursued the things that she finds interesting, leading to a princess who loves horse riding, reading, and messing around in the gardens. She’s a free spirit. However, when her father informs her that she’s being married to a supposedly brutal and frightening warlord in order to protect the kingdom, she decides to run away from the palace, setting her sights on the Tangleroot forest, where powerful magics are said to reside. This being the longest story in the collection means that we get to spend a lot more time with the characters, and as such I found that I came to really like the princess, as well as the folks she meets along the way. As with some of the other stories in the book, it did feel like a scaled back version of a story that would normally be given a book all to itself, and as such felt a bit light in places, but was otherwise interesting, engaging, and delightful.

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The Tangleroot Palace is a great collection of stories from an author with a lot of talent. Most of these stories are short, but you still find yourself coming to care for the protagonists, being invested in the stories, or intrigued by the worlds that Marjorie Liu has created. The stories collected here highlight where Liu’s skills lie, with crafting stories, characters, and worlds that very quickly become engaging and intriguing. The stories all feel like they could have been books in their own rights, that they could have been expanded upon and built into bigger tales, and in some ways it does feel a bit of a shame that some of them haven’t been. Whilst I loved reading the stories on offer here, a lot of the time I felt a little sad that they didn’t go on longer.

As a way of being introduced to Liu’s work, this book is a great way of seeing if she’s an author you want to try out, as it showcases her variety and versatility, and gives you some idea of what to expect from her other work. I did have a lot of fun reading these stories, I just wish I had more of them.

The Tangleroot Palace is out now from Titan Books.

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