Title: Fireheart Tiger

Publisher: Tor

Author: Aliette de Bodard

Pages: 106pp

Price: $13.99 / $3.99

As a child, Princess Thanh of Bình Håi was sent as a diplomatic hostage to the much more powerful nation of Ephteria. Now grown and returned home — but only after the palace in Ephteria mysteriously burned to the ground — Thanh is struggling to find a place for herself. She is not a warrior like her two elder sisters, and her mother only ever finds fault with her, criticizing everything about Thanh. Then diplomats arrive from Ephteria, led by none other than Princess Eldris. Are Eldris’ declarations of love sincere? Can they forge a lasting peace that will keep Bình Håi free? And what of the fire elemental Giang who has followed Thanh all the way home from Ephteria? Can an inhuman spirit love a human? With so many choices before her, and the stakes so high, who and what will Thanh choose?

De Bodard is quickly becoming one of my favorite fantasy/science fiction authors. Her Aztec-inspired Servant of the Underworld is a terrific magical murder mystery, while Red Station Drifting is a Vietnamese-inspired science fiction novella set in a far future of empire, living space ships, and high tea. Here, she turns her talent towards creating a Vietnamese-flavored, matriarchal epic fantasy, and the results are wonderful.

I really like Thanh. She is the neglected youngest child, quiet and shy. She has spent her life observing, watching and listening, rather than speaking up for herself. Now she finds herself at a crossroads, personally and politically. She knows the Ephterians far better than her mother; she can see their end scheme. But she also loves Eldris, and a marriage would solve many of her nation’s problems — while also creating a host of new issues.

The matriarchal element of the story is particularly interesting. Both Bình Håi and Ephteria are ruled by women who will, in turn, be succeeded by daughters. Daughters lead Bình Håi’s military and women head Ephteria’s diplomatic mission. The only men in the entire story are the eunuchs who serve the queen of Bình Håi, and only one of them is named. Though it is never stated explicitly, I have to wonder if the ancestors whom Thanh desperately consults are all female, as well. And I get the distinct impression — though, again, it is never stated — that heterosexual marriage is unheard-of. The only marriages referenced are between women, and no royal consort or father of Thanh and her sisters is ever mentioned.

Fireheart Tiger is a beautifully-written coming-of-age fantasy set in a wonderfully-realized world of elementals, forbidden love, and political intrigue. Highly recommended to fans of de Bodard’s other books, as well as The Singing Hills Cycle by Nghi Vo, Burning Roses by SL Huang, Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, The Return of the Sorceress by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and the Sword and Sonnet anthology.

[Reviewed by Rebecca Buchanan.]

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