A Fantastical Journey to Finding Yourself: Review of The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie Liu
Anke Marie Bock
The Tangleroot Palace: Stories. By Marjorie Liu. Tachyon Publications, June 15, 2021.
When setting out to read Marjorie Liu’s newest piece of literature, you may not know what to expect from this well-known Marvel comic book writer. The Tangleroot Palace is a selection of short stories and the titular novella. Marking the stories as belonging to a specific genre is not only difficult, but would also undermine their potential, nature and richness. The award-winning author describes these works as “fragments of my imagination”, which is all one needs to know: she presents pieces of her mind and wraps them in metaphoric, colorful, and riveting language. Her lyrical writing style encapsulated me immediately and opened the door to a fantastical world which seems to be limited to nothing.
Marjorie Liu is a master in arresting the reader’s attention from the very beginning, throwing them into mystery and riddles with tense and ticklish imagery. The Tangleroot Palace features third-person narrators as well as first-person ones, female and male perspectives, worlds that could be described as magical as well as futuristic. Voodoo practitioners and the Amish are part of her narratives, as are vampires, forest queens, scientists, witches, warlords, and warriors. No matter which story you pick, Marjorie Liu captivates with her evocative language an instinct for adjusting the story’s tone according to its content and the ideal narrative perspective.
The characters are not only deep but also very authentic. By switching between female and male protagonists, addressing feminist (and generally social and human) problems and presenting different worlds and periods, Marjorie Liu provides unlimited potential for the reader to identify with any of its diverse characters. She criticizes the thoughtless consumption of pop-cultural products thus making the reader rethink power structures in society, denounces abuse of power, and emphasizes what she thinks are the truly important things in life, without making it too obvious or kitschy. In her conception of characters, she establishes relevant attributes in subtle ways which makes the figures deep and human, even if they are actually not human at all.
The first story, titled “Sympathy for the Bones”, startles the reader with the protagonist’s unemotional confession that she has, indeed, killed a man with a doll. It focuses on a girl who has been taken in and raised by an elderly woman offering the use of her voodoo skills to the common folk. The girl follows her foster mother’s tradition by also producing voodoo dolls—from corpses, to kill people, as a profession. The numb and insensitive dealings with death as well as a killer’s perspective evoke a dilemma for the reader, as the narration clearly wants the reader to identify with the girl. The first-person narrator remains distant, yet encapsulates the reader who seeks to learn more about her past to explain her current situation. The story ignores this wish, though, and tells the reader not what they want to read but what the story wants to tell, taking a life of its own. This makes the reading experiment not only unexpected but also thrilling and challenging.
“The Briar and the Rose” is told by a third-person narrator, far more emotionally than expected. It tells the story of the Duelist, a woman with a dark secret, who is guarding someone she despises:the only one who knows her it. “Call Her Savage” features gods and religion, yet stresses the humanity of the super-powered Chinese warrior princess Xīng as she fights a mystical beast. Her body and physical skills are as inhuman as the monster’s outer appearance, yet both are more human and alike than it first seems. The shift of the setting to China opens its entire universe of myths and mysteries, which enrich the storyline and keep the reader off-guard.
“The Last Dignity of Man” shows Marjorie Liu’s close connection with superhero comics. She introduces a character who aspires to follow his idol and name-twin Lex Luthor’s footsteps by becoming a brilliant scientist. While he is still struggling with whether or not to align his life with evil ambitions, the narrator provides hints and implications that this decision has already been made. The references towards the comic character and his opponent, Superman, are very subtle and yet easy to decode amongst others due to the reader’s expectations of reading stories by a comic book writer. Small words such as “cape” or “Clark” are enough for the reader to follow the allusion. Besides, Liu succintly depicts depicting the inner conflicts of a homosexual man finding himself as well as seeking acceptance from himself and others.
The book ends with the title story: “Tangleroot Palace.” It takes its time to characterize its main figures in detail, and the previous stories feel like a preparation for what is now to come. The reader expects all kinds of fantasy, magic, mysticism and surprise—and is not disappointed in the end. The reader accompanies Sally on her journey in search of herself and freedom, and digress towards a journey of the reader which is still ongoing even when Sally has already reached her destination. She, along with the other stories’ protagonists, takes one by the hand and pushes them out the door. There is much to explore and even more to find.
Moreover, you can identify many literary works which have had direct influences on these narratives. Fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty, superhero comics like Superman, even Shakespeare’s plays—they reveal Marjorie Liu’s critical and productive dealing with literature and also that of her other projects, for example her contribution to certain Marvel comics—as she says, these stories are part of her imagination and therefore part of herself. You can feel her soul in these stories and at times are even carried away as she lends her unique voice to the reading experience.
However, one thing that made me a huge fan of her writing is her unpredictability. Not only does she include plot twists that may surprise even experienced readers; or that she makes you sympathize with one specific character, only for you to later find out that they are not what they seem; no, it is her changeability, her ability to construct you a thrilling and exciting story without telling you what it is really about until the end. Liu’s stories demand rereading, not for comprehension, but for coming to terms with the climax and process the subversion of your expectations from the tales. Although these narratives are mostly rather short and fantastical, conveyed in beautiful and lyrical words, they have far more power and deeply impact the reader than their length or whimsical nature might suggest. Reading them is not finished by having reached the last sentence. Marjorie Liu forces you to stick with her fragments of imagination, to find a place in your own imagination for them and to take them in.
Nevertheless, her stories all have one thing in common: they present strong people who do not fit into societal, patriarchal norms, and often feature characters marginalized for their gender or sexuality, revealing their internal struggles and emphasizing their hidden strength and greatness. The worlds and scenarios deviate, but the atmosphere is always powerful. It gives the characters the chance to rethink their own lives. Marjorie Liu provides this collection with the understanding that happiness as well as power and strength are highly individual, and that personal things and the outcome of one’s personal identity is unpredictable. These are journeys to strength and self-discovery, and where better to start than in a fantastical world full of magic and mysteries.
Anke Marie Bock is a PhD candidate at the University of Augsburg, Germany. Her doctoral project focuses on the superhero figure and the varieties of evil in the American comics of the Silver Age. She is a member of the German Society of Comics Studies and of the Popular Culture Association. She chaired the panel on Gender Identities in the Comics and Comic Art area at the 2018 PCA National Conference in March 2018 in Indianapolis/USA. She has presented and published papers on a variety of Marvel characters. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This review was commissioned by editor Ashumi Shah on November 20, 2020 via an invitation emailed directly to the reviewer owing to her interest in the genre and author; the reviewer and editor are colleagues at the Chair of New English Literatures and Cultures at the University of Augsburg, Germany. A review copy was arranged by ARB.