The Tangleroot Palace


Marjorie Liu


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

October 31, 2021

his is an outstanding collection of seven dark fantasy stories. Liu is excellent at creating atmosphere, mystery and disturbing images. The reader is not always sure what is lurking at the margins of the story, but the reader can sense it will be dreadful and frightening. I have seen Liu's Monstress comics (I was drawn to them by the lush, detailed artwork, but discovered a world with much greater depth and thought than is typically found in comics), and I liked them, so I checked out The Tangleroot Palace from the library to see what else Liu had to offer. Turns out, she has a lot of stories to tell. I may have to hunt down some of her novels.

Sympathy for the Bones - Liu starts of the story collection with a dark tale set in a grey, dismal wood. The poor inhabitants cluster in ramshackle huts; they eke out a marginal existence working for the quarry. One inhabitant of this forbidding landscape is an ancient woman, Ruth, who is believed to be a witch. Ruth constructs voodoo dolls, and then does dreadful things to them; everyone fears the old woman, and with good reason. Ruth has a young apprentice, Clora, whom she has adopted as a young girl when her parents perished. Clora has been gradually learning the dark crafts of Ruth, but has been ultra careful to never cross Ruth. Ruth is ruthless, and she keeps a doll that resembles Clora up on the shelf, just in case Clora gets any foolish ideas. This creepy tale has grave robbing, black magic, and masterful depictions of dread.

The Briar and the Rose - a tall, brown skinned woman, called The Duelist, serves as the mighty bodyguard to the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, Carmela. Anyone foolish enough to threaten Carmela or engage in swordplay with the Duelist is summarily dispatched. It turns out that beautiful Carmela has a dark secret. She is really an ancient witch who seizes control of the body of beautiful young women. Over the centuries, the witch has hopped from body to body, always living as a desirable woman. But her possession of each victim is incomplete. On the seventh night, the witch must sleep and relinquish control, and the true spirit of the imprisoned woman can emerge. The Duelist discovers that Carmela controls the body of Rose, who is as lovely in spirit as she is in flesh. Duelist falls in love, but the witch's power is absolute.

The Light and the Fury - in an alternate history, this is the story of Xing, a princess of China who is battling the British invaders during the Opium War. This story as a steampunk feel to it - there are submarines, zeppelins, and creatures born from unholy experiments.

The Last Dignity of Man - a brilliant man named Alexander Lutheran controls a huge business empire. He is using his talents to construct new living creatures; the government wants a worm that can gobble up toxic wastes. Unfortunately, these voracious worms are designed too well - they eat and eat, growing to horrific size. Alexander is a bit unstable, he prefers that people call him Lex Luthor, he patterns his life after the arch villain from the Superman comic books. Alexander seems to think that if he plays the role of Lex Luthor, then the universe will have to respond by making Superman real as well.

Where the Heart is - Lucy is kicked out of her house by her father, who has no use for a young girl. Lucy is sent off to act as a servant for Miss Lindsey, who owns a home in the middle of a vast and forbidding forest. Just reaching the house is an adventure, the wagon driver who drops Lucy off warns her to not leave the path and enter the forest. Oh, and watch for ghosts. With that unsettling admonition, Lucy starts down the trail to Miss Lindsey's home. But is that a young woman that Lucy hears crying out in fear at the edge of the forest?

After the Blood - this is another creation full of ghastly images and horrific scenes. A young couple, Amanda and Henry, live on a walled farm, while horrors surround them in the menacing forest. It seems a strange plague has destroyed most of human civilization, and many of the survivors are gruesomely changed. Indeed, it seems that Henry is a vampire - he is one of the undead. This story implied a lot of background that I don't think I understood - the devastating plague, the fearful but ruthless neighbors, the wisewoman Maggie who appears at the end of the story, the herd of cats that follow Amanda everywhere- in her afterward, Liu says this story is a sequel to her Dirk & Steele series; perhaps if I had read any of those novels first, I would have appreciated this story more.

Tangleroot Palace - this novella was my favorite in a strong collection of stories. It is the story of young Sally, a headstrong princess. Her father's kingdom is being gradually overrun by raiders, and the king cannot stop the intrusions. His solution is to marry Sally off to a ruthless warlord who has many barbarian soldiers under his command. With Sally as his bride, the savage warlord will certainly repel the invaders and the kingdom will be saved. But Sally is appalled by such a dreadful fate. A wise woman suggests finding a solution to this dilemma in the dangerous, magical wood - the Tangleroot forest. But the few people who return from entering the forest are often changed. Nonetheless, Sally is undaunted, and she slips out of her father's castle and journeys toward the forbidding forest...

These were all enjoyable tales. Unfortunately, the King County Library System carries none of Liu's other novels (though it does have all volumes of the Monstress comic series). I would like to read more of her work.