The Tangleroot Palace
by Marjorie Liu
256pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 4.6/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.17/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.06/5

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The Tangleroot Palace contains six short stories and one novella by New York Times bestselling author and comic book writer Marjorie Liu, each of which is followed by her reflections on it. The author’s introduction mentions that she could not resist making some edits to these previously published stories, but they remain essentially the same as they were beforehand.

I’d never read any of these stories before this book so I can’t comment on any changes, but I can say this: The Tangleroot Palace is one of the best short story collections or anthologies I’ve ever read. Admittedly, I haven’t read a huge number of these from start to finish since I tend to be more of a novel reader, but the fact that I did read this one from start to finish—without even taking a break to read another book in between—is a testament to Marjorie Liu’s writing. As usual, I did like some stories more than others, but there weren’t any that I thought were far better or worse than the rest. In fact, I rather enjoyed and appreciated every single story in this collection.

These seven stories are all quite different from each other, and this collection encompasses a variety of subgenres and settings: paranormal fantasy, a fairy tale retelling, high fantasy, our world with alternate history and superpowers, and our world with a fictional tech giant and a speculative science experiment (that goes awry, of course!). Even the two stories set in the same world as the Dirk & Steele paranormal romance series seem like completely separate worlds since one is a prequel set decades earlier and the other is set in the future—I never would have guessed these were in the same setting except for their endings, which loosely tied them together. These stories also vary in tone and style: some are darker, some are lighter, and two are told from first-person perspectives.

Despite their differences, the order of these stories makes them seem like they are in conversation with each other in some ways. As Marjorie Liu discussed in her introduction, there are common threads like “a longing for home, friendship, love—characters often driven by a weary hope in the possibility of something good.” There’s also some thematic overlap that carries throughout the book. The first couple of stories have characters who have had their bodily autonomy stolen by witches, and the second and third touch on how tales and legends grow and change in the telling. Part of the next is about finding friendship, and the final three all feature friendship/found family, romance, and mysterious creepy forests. Some of these were written as feminist versions of specific fairy tales or stories with certain elements, and many have women who rescue themselves, each other, and/or others.

Another common thread is how perfectly Marjorie Liu parceled details about the world and/or the protagonist’s predicament throughout these stories. She didn’t explain all the specifics right up front but revealed them naturally as they became relevant. There were a few times I wasn’t sure exactly was happening at the beginning of the story, but there was enough of a hook that I wanted to find out—and it always came together by the end. I thought Marjorie Liu struck just the right balance between too much and too little information, making it alluring rather than too confusing, and she revealed more at just the right time.

Since I did have fun going into these stories without knowing where they would take me, you may not want to read more about the individual stories below. (In particular, I enjoyed this about the first and third stories and the beginning of the second.) That said, I did reread the first story and parts of the others later, and I don’t think having this knowledge beforehand made them any less enjoyable—if anything, it made me admire them more.

But if you would prefer to pick up The Tangleroot Palace without having too much of an idea of what each story is about, I’ll just leave you with a few more general thoughts since I’ve discussed the positive aspects of this great collection without touching on why I didn’t absolutely love it. There wasn’t anything I especially disliked about it, but the middles of stories could be a bit slow, especially the novella. And as usual with short stories, there wasn’t enough page time for me to get too emotionally invested even if I did adore a couple of the characters (who were both women probably somewhere around middle age).

For those of you who would like to know more about these stories before deciding whether or not this is a book for you, there’s a little about each below.

“Sympathy for the Bones” is a creepy tale told from the first-person perspective of an orphaned teenage girl who learned hoodoo from the old woman who took her in. She’s a clever survivor who has planned a long game to try to escape a bad situation, and this is one of the stories that I thought was all the better for letting it unravel piece by piece. Although I wasn’t captivated from start to finish, I appreciated this a lot more after having read it.

“The Briar and the Rose” is a loose retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” centering two women: a scarred guardswoman known as the Duelist, and the princess she loves but only sees one day a week because her current employer is a body-snatching witch. It’s about their relationship and quest to break the spell, and in fairy tale fashion, it’s also about the power of storytelling and naming. This had a wonderful premise, beginning, and ending, and although I thought the middle felt a little too drawn out at times, I enjoyed it overall.

“The Light and the Fury” follows the Lady Marshal, a super-powered warrior who comes out of retirement for one last mission involving a woman with whom she has a complicated friends-to-lovers-to-enemies history. This is my absolute favorite story in this collection because the world and protagonist are so richly developed—I was surprised to read the commentary afterward and learn this was not a story that took place in the same setting as one of Marjorie Liu’s series. The Lady Marshal is a fantastic character I’d love to read more about. She’s haunted by what she did in the war a decade ago and would rather live in peaceful solitude, and she doesn’t feel like she can measure up to other’s expectations of her when they treat her with reverence for her past exploits—but she does her best regardless.

“The Last Dignity of Man” is about a lonely, wealthy genius who made his family’s company into a global leader in biotech—and fears that between his career and his name being Alexander Lutheran, he is basically Lex Luthor. Yet he wants to believe in goodness and that where there is a Lex Luthor, there is also a Superman. This story features finding friendship and a scientific development that’s supposed to solve an environmental problem, but instead, it goes horribly wrong with the federal government’s involvement. It did require some suspension of disbelief to imagine a corporate giant who actually treated his employees well and had some concerns about playing god, but like Alexander, I wanted to believe in something better and did so. I really liked this this because of the hope, compassion, and the protagonist’s thoughts on superheroes and villainy.

“Where the Heart Lives” is a prequel to the Dirk & Steele series about seventeen-year-old Lucy, who finds something unexpected when her father sends her away to work for a woman named Miss Lindsay: a home. When she becomes the only person to ever hear the voice of a woman lost to the woods twenty years ago, she learns that neither she nor the world are as normal as she’d always thought. This is a lovely feel-good story, and I was particularly fond of Miss Lindsay for the way she took others under her wing, making Lucy feel welcome, safe, and valued for the first time in her life.

“After the Blood” is also in the same setting as the Dirk & Steele series, but in the future after a devastating pandemic changed the world, resulting in fewer cities and more dependence on agricultural communities. (Rest assured that it’s not actually about a pandemic, though.) It’s a story about surviving monsters and grappling with being monstrous told from the first-person perspective of Amanda, who has blood with the power to keep dangerous supernatural beings away. She’s close to the two sons of her Amish neighbors, particularly the one rejected by his family after they realized he was a vampire, believing him to be just as bad as the monsters he was trying to protect them from when he revealed his secret. This was my least favorite story in the collection, but I still enjoyed it, especially the way Amanda and the two brothers were there for each other.

“The Tangleroot Palace” is the novella-length story, which tells of a princess whose father arranged for her to wed the Warlord of the South: the king is desperate for alliances, and the infamous young man can’t be that bad as the son of the deceased queen’s dearest friend. Sally, the king’s daughter, believes her betrothed can be exactly as bad as rumored, so she flees to the Tangleroot Forest in hopes of finding magic and answers. She finds all that and more as she learns about the forest’s mysteries and her mother’s past—and befriends a group of traveling performers along the way.

Although I thought the middle had some parts that were a bit dull, “The Tangleroot Palace” is a delightful story overall. It’s the most humorous and light-hearted in the collection, and having suspicions about the “surprise” reveal at the end made it all the more fun so I assume it was intentionally predictable. I especially loved how Marjorie Liu wrote the unconventional princess in this story. Sally is one of those feisty princesses who gets her hands dirty in the garden, speaks her mind, and rebels against her father’s choice of marriage partner. But she also thinks her father is a good man who wouldn’t put her in this position if he were not truly terrified, and she won’t abandon him: instead of running away permanently, she gives herself one week to search for a different solution. I rather liked how Sally took matters into her own hands without completely throwing duty to the wind.

“The Tangleroot Palace” is a strong ending to this collection of the same name, but as I wrote before, I found every single story noteworthy. This book is a keeper with a range of wonderful stories, and I hope to see future collections of Marjorie Liu’s short fiction.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.