The Tangleroot Palace: A solid collection

The Tangleroot Palace by Marorie Liu science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Tangleroot Palace by Marorie Liu science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie Liu

I’m a big fan of Marjorie Liu’s MONSTRESS series, so I was eager to pick up her collection of short stories, entitled The Tangleroot Palace (2021). Unfortunately, while there was a lot to admire in terms of the prose itself, the stories didn’t do much for me, though they were solid enough. I’ll note, however, as I always do when reviewing a collection, that I’m a tough audience when it comes to short stories, generally preferring longer, more developed works (though one of my favorite books this year will be a collection of stories).

Liu’s collection brings together a half-dozen stories and the eponymous novella. As noted, the prose is strong throughout, especially considering the stories were written while she was still in her twenties and thirties, as she tells us in the introduction. Not particularly lyrical or poetic, the strength of the prose lies instead in its carefully concrete precision. Characters, setting, objects are all sharply, precisely depicted, while various atmospheres (tense, ominous, surreal) are vividly created and maintained. Forests play a major role throughout, and Liu has a deft hand in conveying the different feel a tree or an entire forest can have depending on time of day, season, and type of tree. On a sentence level, a craft level, the stories were a pleasure to read.

Characterization and voice were also strong throughout The Tangleroot Palace, with each story’s main character(s) having a unique sense of individuality; each feeling like a fully formed person of conflicting needs and desires and traits as opposed to props in service of plot.

Marjorie M. Liu

Marjorie Liu

Plot, though, and impact of plot, is where I had trouble connecting in any strongly positive way. I didn’t dislike any (maybe one), but also none truly surprised me or moved me or excited me. And where several reached for an emotional impact, it didn’t feel earned to me, sometimes due to “insta-attraction,” sometimes due to not enough development, or a distancing due to not enough explained. And between the several forests, the several near-retellings of fairy tales, there was a bit too much overlap for me as well.

My favorite was probably “Sympathy for the Bones,” in its depiction of desperation and a person in conflict with what they feel they must do. “The Briar and the Rose” was a well-told and somewhat different take on the Sleeping Beauty story, but didn’t bring much new to the table, was a bit predictable, and suffered, as several of the stories do, from a relationship we’re more told exists than feel exists. “Call her Savage” is set in an intriguing alternate universe where China has a second “Pacifica” Empire in North America, having secretly colonized the west coast even before the British colonists arrived in the east. The story, though, felt disjointed and again set up an emotional impact that didn’t feel earned. I would have liked a novella-length story here to develop both the setting and the characters a bit more.

The same issue of relationships that are written but not felt occurred in “The Last Dignity of Man,” “Where the Heart Lives,” and the title novella. “After the Blood,” a kind of post-apocalyptic Amish vampire story, was the one story I didn’t really care for at all and the only one that truly felt overlong. As for the novella, it was marred a bit by some predictability, an anti-climactic confrontation, and a sense that we’ve seen these character types and storylines before in numerous pieces. But despite those issues, it was my second favorite after “Sympathy for the Bones,” and probably the most enjoyable, being less grim and involving several engaging characters with good banter.

While I didn’t really dislike any of the stories (save for the Amish vampires), and the style maintains a high quality throughout, The Tangleroot Palace also doesn’t contain any stories I want to proselytize about, no “you’ve got to read this …” pieces. So while I admit it’s a bit muddy, I’m still going to have to go with “solid” as the overall descriptor.

Published in June 2021. New York Times bestseller and Hugo, British Fantasy, Romantic Times, and Eisner award-winning author of the graphic novel Monstress, Marjorie Liu leads you deep into the heart of the tangled woods. In her long-awaited debut collection of dark, lush, and spellbinding short fiction, you will find unexpected detours, dangerous magic, and even more dangerous women. Briar, bodyguard for a body-stealing sorceress, discovers her love for Rose, whose true soul emerges only once a week. An apprentice witch seeks her freedom through betrayal, the bones of the innocent, and a meticulously plotted spell. In a world powered by crystal skulls, a warrior returns to save China from invasion by her jealous ex. A princess runs away from an arranged marriage, finding family in a strange troupe of traveling actors at the border of the kingdom’s deep, dark woods. Concluding with a gorgeous full-length novella, Marjorie Liu’s first short fiction collection is an unflinching sojourn into her thorny tales of love, revenge, and new beginnings.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. Wow, I’d love to read something in the “Call her Savage” world as you’ve described it here. It sounds trippy, wonderful and possible.

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