WHEN THE TIGER CAME DOWN THE MOUNTAIN is Nghi Vo’s second book, after her beautiful, wonderfully-crafted novella The Empress of Salt and Fortune. When the Tiger is a standalone that follows the insatiably curious Cleric Chih on another outing to document the history and folklore of the Ahn Empire for their order of monks, The Singing Hills. Accompanied by their guide Si-yu, a young scout from one of the northern tribes, they are waylaid in a snowy mountain pass by a pack of tigers with an affinity for storytelling – and human flesh. Can Chih appease the tigers long enough to prevent their untimely death and, perhaps more importantly for Chih, can they unravel the intricately-layered story of a famous tiger and her scholar lover?
Nghi Vo knows how to tell a beautiful, engaging and sometimes heart breaking story. More uniquely, she knows how to tell a story about telling stories. I talked a lot in my review of The Empress of Salt and Fortune about how we aren’t reading a story exactly how it happened, but a story filtered through layers of human experience and memory. When the Tiger is like that too, but much more directly. Chih, as a chronicler of history, culture and folklore, is a skilled storyteller and throughout the course of this book the only thing keeping them and Si-yu alive are (from the tigers perspective) the misrepresentations in the telling of one of their most treasured tales – misrepresentations they feel duty bound to correct before devouring their captives.
It’s a great narrative style that has tension baked into its very bones, while delving deep into the culture of the book’s world, through examining how its folklore and stories have developed over time, in a way that feels natural and engaging. I really love in fantasy books when writers hint at the existence of wider cultural touchstones like collections of fairy tales in that world and sometimes wish I could actually read those tales. Well, When the Tiger is like that, except it focusses on the oral telling of one particular tale told through different lenses.
The way Nghi Vo structures the two Singing Hills Cycle stories is quite wonderful, skipping between ‘the present’ and the memory world of the story within the story. It allows us to feel steeped in that culture of her world while also exploring the character of those telling and listening to those stories and how they respond to the exchange. I feel like I got to know Cleric Chih much better in this book; it was always apparent they were driven by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, that they thrive on stories and the discovery of stories, but this book shows the lengths they’ll go to in order to dig those stories up. In Chih’s mind, it’s almost worth dying to have the chance to hear the tigers tell their version of the fraught love story of their most revered ancestor and her scholar lover.
I really loved the relationships between the three tigers keeping Chih and Si-yu captive too. They are sisters, all with very different personalities. Their leader Sinh Loan is proud, intelligent and easily offended. She is the one who becomes most agitated at what she perceives as the inaccuracies in Chih’s version of the story and threatens on multiple occasions to eat them just to teach them a lesson. Sinh Hoa is seemingly much more relaxed, spending much of the book dozing by the fire while Chih and Sinh Loan verbally spar over the story, though it seemed to me that all the while she had one eye open, so to speak. Sinh Cam is much more chatty, getting involved with the conversation and sometimes coming into conflict with Sinh Loan over how to deal with Chih and Si-yu. All this was just a pleasure to read and watching it play out while also being fully invested in the second story they were telling each other added this layer of complexity to the book that just made me smile.
Nghi Vo is just great folks, I loved this book and I’m really hoping there’s gonna be more Singing Hills Cycle books. In the meantime I’m super excited for The Chosen and the Beautiful, her fantasy reimagining of The Great Gatsby in a world of infernal pacts and dazzling illusions, lost ghosts and elemental mysteries, which is coming out in June 2021. If that sounds great and you haven’t read The Empress of Salt and Fortune or When The Tiger then I really do recommend them, they’re just wonderful.
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