I go batshit crazy every time I hear there’s a new Aliette de Bodard novella coming out. I went even more wild when I saw the cover art for FIREHEART TIGER, her latest release about a toxic sapphic romance that examines the impact of colonialism in a Vietnamese-inspired fantasy world.
You know those writers that just have a signature style? A really distinguishable voice and themes that run through their work that make you just know who you’re reading? Aliette de Bodard is one of those writers. She has a wonderful way of tackling huge themes within the confines of very personal stories and Fireheart Tiger is exactly that. It’s the story of quiet, thoughtful Thanh, a princess in the court of Bình Hải, now a diplomat in the service of the crown tasked with heading upcoming negotiations with the colonial nation of Ephteria, where she once resided as a royal hostage. Things take a sinister and complicated turn however, when Thanh’s former lover Eldris of Ephteria is revealed to be a lead negotiator on the other side. It soon becomes clear Eldris has ulterior motives for attempting to rekindle their old flame and flames, in Thanh’s hands, are far from benign.
Good novella writers are so talented man. It really is a skill to be able to write such a packed story in such a short word count. I feel like I got to know so much about Thanh’s personality, her relationships and the world she lives in without anything feeling left out of the story de Bodard set out to tell. From Thanh’s troubled time spent as a hostage in Ephteria and her fractious relationship with her mother to the subtle displays of pageantry and veiled insults of social behaviour in the imperial court, everything felt wonderfully vibrant and complete. Social behaviour and the messages imbued in it is actually part of that signature de Bodard style that I love; when the Ephterian trade delegation arrives it’s outwardly portrayed as a ‘friendly visit’ and on the surface everyone behaves as though this were true, but all the same ‘they can all hear the words that aren’t said, the truth of steel beneath the silver-tongued platitudes’. I love big fantasy battles and naked violence as much as any reader, but there’s something about the subtlety of barbed words and the violence meted out in treaties and administration that is infinitely more fascinating to me. It actually gives this novella a quieter vibe than a lot of fantasy stories, but dig a little deeper and it’s apparent that a signature on a scroll of parchment can be just as dramatic as any pitched battle.
The imbalance of power is a big theme of this book. Thanh’s relationship with Eldris is a sort of microcosm of the power imbalance between both their countries as a whole. There was a wonderfully poetic mirroring of these two relationships in the narrative that was really well done and added deeper layers of meaning to the story. Where Bình Hải cannot overcome the might of Ephteria alone and must look to other smaller nations to ally and band together with, so does Thanh come to find strength and partnership in the fire elemental, Giang. I’m wary of talking too much about Giang, as I think readers are best served by going in with as little info about their role in the story as possible but, suffice to say, the relationship that develops between Thanh and Giang over the course of the story is both painful and heart-warming, like any complex relationship rooted in shared trauma and a mutual coming to terms with it would be. As a reader I find I’m coming to appreciate complex romance stories like this more than I ever thought I would, and Aliette de Bodard has had a major part to play in that.
This is another novella Aliette de Bodard has knocked out of the park. Complex and subtle in places, explosive and heartwrenching in others, Fireheart Tiger is for sure a story I’ll be recommending everyone read.
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