Family visits with the In-laws during a major holiday can be awfully stressful. Ask the fallen angel Asmodeus, head of House Hawthorn. He is visiting the Dragon Kingdom underneath the Seine river, the birthplace of his husband Thuan, along with a delegation from his house for Lunar New Year. It’s a time of feasts, celebration, getting to know the in-law’s family. For Thuan it's a chance to see his home and family for the first time in a long time, and show off his husband to his family. It also appears to be a time for the pair of them to walk right into a murder plot, a murder plot that may well be more than it appears...
So Asmodeus and Thuan find out in Aliette de Bodard’s Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, a Dominion of the Fallen Story.
A Dominion of the Fallen Story is a cause for celebration, and this story is no exception to that. Seeing Asmodeus and Thuan on Thuan’s home ground provides the writer as a writer and us as readers another view of the Underwater Kingdom of the Seine and just what pressure cooker of a complex and dangerous court produced the bookish Thuan in the first place. The insider/outsider perspective of the wedded couple returning, and using Thuan as our point of view, gives the story a delightful “Oh no, I am bringing my husband to see my family, I want them to love him as I do, and also keep him from going overboard when things go wrong.” . The strong point of view focus sticking to Thuan helps keep a good line through for the plot, as a murder that occurs right on their doorstep leads Asmodeus and Thuan into an ever more complex plot.
The story is nuanced in its basic premise. A fish out of water story at its heart, and the principals thrown into a murder investigation right off, the high concept of “A murder happens, and Thuan has to keep his husband from cutting a bloody swath to solve the problem, and yet the strictures of Dragon Kingdom society mean that creative approaches are needed” means that there are going to be funny culture clash and expectation smashing as you do put the oddest of couples (but they do care for each other deeply) into a situation where both of their talents are needed--and both of their cultural approaches and feelings are at time strong and useful, and also at other times, both are backfooted by who they are. A lesser story would just have it so that Asmodeus is constantly being restrained by his husband, And while the story does have some of that, the story also shows that Thuan, being constrained by propriety and society and expectations, doesn’t always have a solution to move forward, either. It’s a nice balancing act.
And most of all, it's funny and entertaining with great line by line dialogue and turns of phrase and situational comedy. At the time of this publication, of me reading this, and the writing of this review, the world faces a lot of stressful challenges. A short diverting time to see Thuan trying to keep Asmodeus from solving problems by causing bigger problems, and Asmodeus just trying to get through a sometimes outright hidebound society is played lightly, for humour, and it works.
Admittedly, this story doesn’t quite work if you haven’t read the Fallen novels. The character beats of Thuan and Asmodeus, especially, will fall flat if you haven’t read at least House of Sundering Flames. Like an intricate dessert of many parts, though, Aliette’s work just gets richer and better, the more stories and novels you read into it. Additional richness and complexity unfolds, but this is not an entry point into that richness. I also fear those who have read the Fallen novels and fallen for the characters in that world might be disappointed that while we do have a delegation of people visiting the Dragon Kingdom for New Year, the focus is so strongly on Asmodeus and Thuan that they rest get short shrift, even when they briefly do appear. Given the author’s strength in writing characters, this feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.
Overall, however, readers who have enjoyed the previous novels and stories set in the verse will want to know--is this story up to the standards of the previous work. Will I enjoy it? To them, I can unequivocally say “Yes”. Go get it.
Baseline Assessment: 7/10
Bonuses: +1 for excellent dynamics between Thuan and Asmodeusr; +1 for excellent language, turn of phrase, and outright delightful and funny bits.
Penalties: -1 for underutilizing the other previously seen characters who are present in the delegation but barely rate a mention.
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 well worth your time and attention
Reference: De Bodard. Aliette . Of Dragons Feasts and Murders [ JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc. , 2020]
Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.