Review: Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

where even the oldest stone can burn

Lately, I’ve been reading so many good books! This is my third 5-star read during the two-week PhilMyth Readathon, and I’m so excited to tell you all about this beautiful and epic novella. I still can’t stop thinking about it well after closing the book, and I hope that my review does justice to this masterpiece.

Publication Information

  • Publication date: 9 February 2021
  • Publisher: Tordotcom | Macmillan
  • Length/Format: 112 pages, novella
  • Age Group: Adult
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Cover Art: Alyssa Winans
  • Cover Designer: Christine Foltzer
  • Book links:

About the Book:

Award-winning author Aliette de Bodard returns with a powerful romantic fantasy that reads like the Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle in a pre-colonial Vietnamese-esque world.

Fire burns bright and has a long memory….

Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace.

Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions.

Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?

On-page representation: Vietnamese-inspired characters and setting, F/F pairing

Trigger/content warnings: Abusive relationship (emotional/physical), arson, attempted rape (implicit), colonialism (threats, discussed) blackmailing, gaslighting, grooming (discussed), trauma

Review

Recently, I’ve been exploring the SFF genre. I love losing myself in a new world while recognizing that this new setting is as flawed and riddled with familiar issues. However, these worlds take time to set up, and many of my recent favorites are hefty tomes that start at 300 pages (a very conservative estimate) and go upwards to 600-800. Fireheart Tiger comes as a surprise for me since it manages to pack in all the drama, the yearning, the political machinations, nuanced discussions on abuse, and the epic fantasy in a short but powerful novella.

Fireheart Tiger is set in a world inspired by pre-colonial Vietnam and opens the book in the middle of tense negotiations between the smaller kingdom of Bình Hải and the larger, wealthier, and more powerful country of Ephteria. The threat of colonization is looming over the palace, and Thanh–our main character–and her mother the Empress are in deep negotiations to save their own people. Set against this tense backdrop is an exploration of the many faces of abuse: on a political scale, within ties of blood, and in the intimacies of a bedroom.

On a political level, it documents Ephteria’s gaslighting: “You can’t do this. We can help you, but our help comes with a price.” I think it’s rare to have diplomatic negotiations at the center of the book. Usually, these are scenes that are meant for exposition or for building tension towards an all-out war. I love how each scene is built–every word is weighed and scrutinized.

Many of these are so hard-hitting, especially considering my own country’s history where swathes of territories and rights were surrendered in unequal treaties. I love how De Bodard portrays how smaller countries often have their backs to the wall, with no recourse but to snap back in desperation. Thanh’s diplomatic solutions seem effective, but they also definitely merit a raised eyebrow. But for some reason, I can also understand the Empress’ unyielding tunnel vision. After all, what choices do kingdoms like theirs really have?

Within the family, Thanh is also left with no choices due to space she takes up–or lack of–in its ranks. At first, it’s so easy to shrug off her circumstances as something normal either because she’s a royal or because it’s expected in an Asian family. But I love how her pain is slowly verbalized and made real, and De Bodard makes us confront it by steadily devoting more page space and using stronger language.

In this aspect, De Bodard explores all the ways someone can be raised to feel small and be silent. I can sense how much love and care is put into writing the scenes between Thanh and her mother and how much of it is pulled from a deeply personal space.

On an intimate level, Fireheart Tiger explores how quietly insidious abuse is developed in a relationship. Every encounter is written in an off-kilter way, like a beautiful fairytale movie shown sideways or tilted in an uncomfortable angle. It’s so easy to just focus on Eldris’ charm and overwhelming passion, and if I had not been paying close attention to Thanh from the the beginning, I would have missed her discomfort and overstepped boundaries.

Aliette de Bodard’s interviews with Fadwa and Skye have also helped me further understand how these themes are developed in the story:

This grand drama would not work without highlighting its unlikely protagonist. Out of all the amazing characters in books I’ve read this year, I can definitely say that Thanh is my favorite! She does everything with a tentative step, and the more time I spend with her, the more I understand how much of her anxiety and insecurities are molded by the people who hold sway over her: her mother, Eldris, political advisers on every front, and so much more. It is so heartbreaking to live through her pain and see just how much abuse she has been through, and I just want to give her a big and warm hug.

She is actually a very capable diplomat and monarch: she has a keen grasp of history and politics; she can see through attempts to disguise strong-arming techniques in diplomatic negotiations; and she puts the interests of the kingdom first. However, all of her contributions are usually thrown away, and she is often relegated to being a bargaining chip who can easily be traded away with no consequence. Without giving anything away, it’s so fulfilling to watch her come to terms with her own power and choose to occupy space in circles that have kept her out for the longest time. I love Thanh so much that my heart hurts 🥺

One of the best parts of this novella is the fire elemental! It comprises the fantasy aspect of this novella. I won’t say much about this because everything about this aspect surprised me and I hope you’ll get the same impact when you read it. But my gosh, this aspect is so amazing, and that climactic scene ties together everything I love about this book. Most of my underlined phrases are part of scenes with the fire elemental, and its commentary on power, space, and independence is something that kept me up for weeks after finishing this book.

Lastly, I love the setting! It’s not something I have encountered before, and De Bodard makes it all the more magical through her descriptions. I am also very new to Vietnamese fiction, so it is interesting to read about the significance of tigers in lore and culture. Check out Aentee’s primer below:

Related post: Tigers in Viet Lore and Upcoming Novellas by Aentee @ Reads At Midnight

Update (13 May 2021): I came across some Twitter threads posted by the author regarding cultural notes used in worldbuilding. The pronouns thread, especially, is very helpful in reframing my reading of certain aspects:

I probably keep saying “it’s rare to see this…” so much, and honestly, that’s why I love this book. It has the story, themes, characters, and setting that I never I knew I needed to read, and the fact that a book containing all of them exists in the world is something I can never really grasp. Who can move past finding a book you know would live in your heart forever?

I hope I’m not overhyping this book, but I do wish that it can reach more readers.

***

I read this book as part of the PhilMyth Readathon, a two-week reading challenge with prompts based on figures from Philippine mythology and folklore. Fireheart Tiger falls under the prompt Santelmo (shortened form for apoy ni Santelmo or St. Elmo’s fire), which is any book with fire in the title or cover. This book has both, so it’s a win for me!

Sadly, PhilMyth Readathon ended last April 10. Though the actual readathon is over, I find the reading prompts helpful in discovering new books to read. You can check out this video by our host, Gerald the Bookworm and peep our co-readers’ TBR piles and progress pics on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtags #PMRIkalawangTaon#PhilMythReadathon.

***

Let’s chat!

  1. Did you join the PhilMyth Readathon too? What was your Santelmo read?
  2. Have you read any interesting novellas lately? Any recommendations?
  3. How familiar are you with Vietnamese history and mythology?

9 thoughts on “Review: Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard”

  1. Hey! I was looking for a review of this title on google and I came across your blog! The review has successfully managed to pique my interest in this title and I am sure that I will order this book straight away! Thank you!!

    Also, I actually read fantasy too! And have a blog! If you have some time, then do drop by!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Three five star reads in two weeks is amazing! I’m so glad you’re finding new favourites.

    Also, you’ve sold me on this book. Instant add to the TBR. It sounds way too good and I personally love discussion on politics and the general representation of such scenarios, and the questions they raise, so this book looks perfect for me. Amazing review, Nae!

    Liked by 1 person

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