(This review contains spoilers)
This isn’t fair. Novellas are not meant to pack in this much to talk about.
Fireheart Tiger is the tale of Thanh, a princess of Bình Hải, a position that has brought her more stress than privilege. The youngest, and therefore expendable, daughter of the formidable Empress, she was sent as a young girl to live in aggressive, expansionist Ephteria; part hostage, part trophy. One love affair, one palace fire, and twelve years years later – and an unknown number of slights and hurts – Thanh is home. She is a negotiator when the Ephterians come seeking more concessions, more power. And leading the Ephterians is the princess Eldris, her former lover, whose gaze still makes Thanh’s heart skip a beat.
It’s a lot of background (but all unpacked in the first ten pages with casual, off-hand artistry, put into the loading bay at the back of my mind while my attention is focused on Thanh’s tightly wound emotions). And a lot of background means a lot of things to burn. And things have a habit of mysteriously burning around Thanh.
This isn’t fair. Novellas are not meant to have this many pyrotechnics. And by not fair, I partly mean I’m struggling with this review, and partly think I’ve got an absolute bargain here. I’ve already brought a copy for a friend.
Let’s talk about Thanh. Thanh is utterly compelling, completely believable, as a woman who has spent her life struggling to fit roles shaped for her by others. “Too soft, too pliant” is the criticism Thanh remembers from her mother. Among many things, Fireheart Tiger is a book about rejecting those roles, and the weight of them is implicit in every page. I didn’t root for Thanh because I was too wrapped up in finding out about her to remember such concepts.
I did often stop to think about what I was reading though, like someone sat by the fire for warmth but having to retreat from time to time. De Bodard has a gift for showing damaging situations in easy to read, almost soothing, ways, then suddenly flashing the cold hard reality of it so there’s no way to mistake what it is. Velvet glove and iron fist. Tender and harrowing. Thanh’s mother sees her as a chess piece, one of the many resources that can be sacrificed to Bình Hải’s safety.
What of Ephteria and Eldris? What role do they have for Thanh and her country? At first we see Eldris’ smouldering passion, her professed love for Thanh, even a willingness to fight for her love and her country by extension. At first this seems like it will be a book about love across divides, about escaping forced roles and forging a brighter future and meeting of cultures. But that direction never seems quite right. It isn’t. The narrative twists in the best possible way – unexpected, yet seemingly inevitable after the fact – as Thanh discovers how Eldris sees her, and the source of her own fires.
And it twists again. Thanh’s rejection of Eldris isn’t a whole hearted endorsement of her mother’s treatment of her as a soldier to send across the river when it suits her. Besides, Thanh doesn’t just have herself to write about. She has Bình Hải too.
I am being vague here. I am trying not to spoil everything. But it is beautiful and harrowing. Yes, that word again. Writing this, I’m reminded of Sir Terry Pratchett’s denunciation in Carpe Jugulum:
‘There’s no greys, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.’
‘It’s a lot more complicated than that -’
‘No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.’
More than just about any book I’ve read, Fireheart Tiger makes me think of that. And how to see yourself when someone else has looked at you and gone “thing”. And how it would feel to have someone come in from halfway across the world and apply thinghood labels to your entire culture. Useful thing. Beautiful thing. Barbaric thing. Thing.
The story itself rattles along without ever being rushed. Every character feels fully fleshed out, nuanced. I am far from an expert on Vietnam, the country on which Bình Hải is based, but I never feel lost in Bình Hải or that De Bodard simplified things for the reader. The prose is first rate; clear, evocative, clever, full of voice. Fireheart Tiger does everything right. It packs a novel’s worth of story and impact into a tiny space. There are so many things to look at here and I’m worried I can’t get them all. I haven’t mentioned the way this work treats sexuality, or how it hints at a wider cast with which you could tell many stories. I’d love to see Thanh tear up the pages with her unseen sisters.
This is Aliette de Bodard’s best work to date, which is a very high bar in my eyes. If there was any doubt in my mind that I just hit buy when she releases fantasy books, there is none now. It lives up to its title perfectly; full of heart, full of beauty and savage destructive power that feeds into each other.
I can’t recommend this enough. Go buy.