Fireheart Tiger, Aliette de Bodard (Tordotcom 978-1-250793263, $14.99, 104pp, tp) February 2021.
Aliette de Bodard seems fascinated by relationships with huge power differentials – angels and mortals, giant mindships and modest students, dragons and young teachers, etc. Thanh, the protagonist of Fireheart Tiger, is a princess of Bình Hải, a small Vietnam-like country seeking to gain protection from the more powerful neighbor Ephteria, and Thanh is assigned by her rather too-critical mother to lead the diplomatic negotiations. Those negotiations quickly grow more complicated and personal when Thanh discovers that the delegation from Ephteria includes the princess Eldris, Thanh’s former lover from the time in which Thanh studied in Ephteria, nearly as a political hostage. The prospect of marrying Eldris is a fairly obvious way of forging an alliance between the two nations, though – once again – it would hardly be an equal relationship. Complicating matters even further is the memory of a palace fire in the capital city Yosolis, which Thanh escaped accompanied by a servant girl named Giang – who, it turns out, is actually a fire elemental, not only responsible for the palace fire but for all sorts of little fires that seem to crop up around Thanh on a regular basis. (Eldris may be an old flame, but she can’t hold a candle to – well, I’d better stop this now.) What inevitably evolves is a love triangle, although poor Thanh, as resourceful as she is, finds herself faced with a choice between becoming a political bride to a much more powerful nation, or the lover of a fire demon who can pretty much immolate anything that annoys her enough.
While some of de Bodard’s recent novellas have borrowed structures from mysteries or fairy tales (and there are clear echoes of folklore here as well), Fireheart Tiger more directly addresses complex questions of colonialism and the fraught negotiations needed to keep an independent nation from being overwhelmed by more powerful neighbors – certainly something that resonates with actual Vietnamese history. Together with Thanh’s testy relationship with her manipulative mother, the shifting personal/political aspects of her affair with Eldris, and the vivid magical realism of the elemental Giang, that’s a lot to pack into a novella. While there are a few instances of corner-cutting – a crucial shift in Eldris’s character seems rather abrupt – Bodard’s usual efficiency at worldbuilding serves her well; with a few insightful strokes, we gain a clear sense of what the shadow of colonialism feels like in a fragile kingdom, and Thanh herself is an ingratiating, thoughtful character whose growing awareness of her own capabilities and her own identity provides a graceful narrative arc. And, of course, there is always de Bodard’s equally graceful and evocative prose.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the March 2021 issue of Locus.
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