Dragons & Blades series
by Aliette de Bodard
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 5, 2020
Edits and Addendum on September 3, 2022
Please note: I reviewed the first title two years ago, but am now combining it with its first sequel, using a different URL. I will eventually delete the older page.
1. Of Dragons, Feast and Murders / 2. Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances
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A new novella described as a spin-off from Aliette de Bodard's Dominion of the Fallen series, "Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders" will be published in a little over a month, July 7, 2020. I received an e-ARC from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. At this time Amazon only has a pre-order for Kindle, and B&N only for the Nook. I'm not sure if a print edition is planned for later. [UPDATE July 7: Amazon now has it in paperback (link above), B&N still only for the Nook, but no listing at Bookshop yet (EDIT: still not at Bookshop more than two years later).] The novels were published by ACE, but the shorter works have been either self-published online only, or in the case of these two, through the indie press JABberwocky Literary Agency.
I have the first novel in the series but haven't read it yet, although I've now read four shorter works, and I believe there are at least three others. I think this is set after the third novel, but it's enough of a stand-alone story as long as you are aware of the general premise. Most of the series is set in a post-apocalyptic Paris, with Fallen Angels aligned in various Houses, along with other supernatural beings. This story is about the Fallen Angel Asmodeus, head of House Hawthorn, and his husband Thuan, a dragon from the Celestial City, which I gather is in an alternate dimension, but I could be wrong about that. Thuan can shape-shift and take human form, and Asmodeus can keep his wings in check to appear human too. The Celestial City, based on Vietnamese culture, is home not only to dragons, but also crab/humans and fish/humans, and probably other creatures, but dragons are the dominant class.
Thuan is a member of the royal family but is uninterested in that part of his life. He is a scholar, fond of books. He now lives with Asmodeus in Paris, but they have come back to the palace in anticipation of the Tet Holiday, Lunar New Year. Their visit is interrupted by a murder. Due to his keen ability to smell blood, Asmodeus gets to the body quickly, and the authorities are unaware he finds and keeps a bag of an unknown powder found on the victim's body, which he suspects is a poison. Thuan is invited to aid in the investigation by one of his cousins, a local magistrate. There are other bodies too, one burned beyond recognition, another Thuan suspects was killed by Asmodeus, who is known to be fond of knives. A synopsis of the story includes "…a tale of dragons, and Fallen angels—and also kissing, sarcasm and stabbing." Asmodeus is convinced they are being trapped between rival court factions. He would rather return to Paris, but Thuan reluctantly commits his help. When they determine the purpose of the powder, Thuan races to warn and protect the Empress. This works well on its own, you can forget about the supernatural trappings and read it as a straight mystery, replete with corrupt authorities, arrogant royalty, and underlings presented as scapegoats.
One of these days I'll read the novels. Yes, I say that a lot, about books I already have and many others I need to buy or borrow from the library. I want to experience the beginnings of Asmodeus and Thuan's relationship. How did they meet, what attracted them to each other, how do they reconcile their differences? Asmodeus is sadistic, prone to violence, but since Thuan is a bit of a masochist it makes some sense. There are other Fallen in other Houses, with some humans aligned with them, and if I recall correctly, another story included vampires. Aliette's prose is lyrical and colorful, visually dynamic, the cultures and characters unique and complex. I've also read a sampling of her Xuya stories, with many more I want to experience. As with the Dominion stories, all work well on their own, but I'd like as broad a view of her worlds as possible. In the future, when I do read the trilogy, I'll create a page for that, perhaps another for the novellas and shorter stories, blending this page into that. In the meantime, check out the links below concerning the Dominion of the Fallen.
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Posted September 3, 2022:
I'm now even more anxious to read the Dominion novels, since things were revealed in this new story that I don't recall from "Dragons." Supposedly Asmodeus and Thuan's marriage was arranged between the Fallen and the Celestial City. They have grown to love and respect each other, but that was not always the case, and they still have occasional quarrels. I won't detail one of their previous conflicts. As with the first story this is a mystery, with another body discovered, but the body comes after they encounter a ghost of a young girl in an abandoned shrine. The ghost, whose name they learn is Lan, apparently witnessed the murder of another. Since I'm averse to violence and am an avid reader, I identify with Thuan the most, but there are aspects of Asmodeus's character that I admire as well. The "Blades" of the stories collective title comes from him, his favorite weapons being knives and swords. He is quick-tempered, sometimes even gleeful in his displays of violence, but he has a very strict moral code, that code being the basis for his belief that violence is necessary in many instances. One of the instances he won't budge on is the protection of children, even if they are a ghost.
Asmodeus takes Lan under his wings, both literally and figuratively, while Thuan is hesitant to even be close to her, especially because they are on a break at the Celestial Palace and caring for two of his nieces, Camille and Ai Nhi. He is plagued with the predominant notion that ghosts feed on the living, sort of like zombies and vampires in other legends. Asmodeus keeps referring to Lan not as a ghost but as a girl who needs their help. Thuan's nieces embrace her as another friend, while Thuan is afraid for himself and everyone else. He has good reason to be afraid. It seems someone has targeted Lan because she had witnessed a murder the perpetrator wants to keep covered up. Another of Thuan's relatives is consulted, who gives them vital information about previous murders in and around the abandoned shrine. On several occasions they are attacked by cut paper figurines imbued with magic, both Thuan and Asmodeus sustaining injuries, the latter being the most severe. Thuan's cousin directs them to the most likely suspect, whom they eventually defeat, but it is not easy. As all of this is happening, Lan becomes more and more substantial. Asmodeus declares her a new part of the family, which delights Camille and Ai Nhi, but it will take a long time for Thuan to overcome his prejudices.
Another intriguing mystery, with significant character development, along with a deeper exploration of Celestial City politics and bureaucracy, not to mention the difficulty of two very different 'people' navigating a serious relationship. Can Thuan and Asmodeus reconcile their different natures, their different outlooks for the future? One benefit for the city as a whole comes about when they determine the likely cause of Lan's death: starvation. Thuan is able to put into place new policies that aid the poor, not just with food, but also better education and preparation for employment. It's too late for Lan, even if she is able to retain her spirit and thrive within a loving family. I hope for more stories featuring Thuan and Asmodeus, whether or not Lan is still around. Recommended.
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