Liz Bourke Reviews Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

Fireheart Tiger, Aliette de Bodard (Tordotcom 978-1-250-79326-3, $13.99, 110pp, tp). Febru­ary 2021.

I’m a confirmed fan of Aliette de Bodard’s work. Quite aside from her novels, In the Vanishers’ Palace is perhaps my favourite fantasy novella in a field bursting with excellent novellas, and her Xuya science fiction includes the award-winning The Tea Master and the Detective – so I’m not alone in valuing her work highly.

Fireheart Tiger is a new novella set in a fantasy world inspired by pre-colonial Vietnam. It is a quiet, powerful story of power and resistance, of control and affection, and of the nature of con­straint and alliance in both politics and personal relationships.

Thanh is the daughter of the empress of Binh Hâi. As a young adolescent, she was sent away to Yosolis in Ephteria, to be hostage to Ephteria’s greater power; a power that hems her mother’s beleaguered empire in on multiple fronts. Now returned home, she feels out of place, the last and least-regarded of her mother’s daughters. And she is haunted, too, by the memories of a fire that destroyed the palace in Yosolis, a fire that might have killed her. Fire follows Thanh, still: small, unexplained conflagrations in corners of her mother’s palace.

Thanh’s chance to win her mother’s respect and be useful comes with renewed negotiations with the Ephterians, who seek even more power and influ­ence in Binh Hâi. The Ephterian delegation also includes the princess Eldris, of an age with Thanh and destined to succeed to the Ephterian throne. In Yosolis, Thanh and Eldris had a brief affair – which Thanh ended before Eldris could, because she knew there was no future in it. Now Eldris has come to Binh Hâi to pursue Thanh, and she’s willing to of­fer marriage to get Thanh to come back to Yosolis with her – a marriage that Thanh’s mother might not approve of, but that has the potential to protect Binh Hâi from Ephteria’s rapacity as an imperial power. Eldris is attractive, and even if she doesn’t understand Thanh, she wants her. Does Thanh want her? And does it even matter?

After all, Eldris will be queen of Ephteria, and she’s used to getting want she wants.

Set against the political benefits and Thanh’s history with Eldris, the tentative connection that Thanh is beginning to find with Giang – a girl Thanh thought was a servant, the girl who saved Thanh on the night of the fire in Yosolis, a girl who is actually a fire spirit – is a slender reed. When Eldris’s jealousy turns violent, though, Giang stands in her way. Thanh must figure out a way forward for herself and her country in the face of overwhelming personal and political pressure.

De Bodard gives us a deft, atmospheric story of love and violence, rooted in a confrontation with colonial power. Thanh’s personal choices are a microcosm of the choices facing Binh Hâi, caught as she is between loyalty to her mother and her own ideas about the best way to proceed – and the constraints on her actions. Gorgeous and moving, with a sense of scale and an intimate, personal engagement with compelling characters, Fireheart Tiger is a worthy addition to de Bodard’s body of work. I enjoyed it greatly.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

This review and more like it in the January 2021 issue of Locus.

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