Thanh is the Empress’s youngest daughter: the expendable one sent to powerful Ephteria as a ‘guest’; the forgotten foreigner they left to burn when their palace caught fire. But Thanh survived to go home, although she has found less herself welcome than she could wish. Now, the arrival of Ephterian envoys is her chance to prove her worth to the Empire… or see her home burn to the ground.
I was surprised and delighted to be granted an ARC of Fireheart Tiger, the latest novella from long-time favourite Aliette de Bodard. Set in a new fantasy world, this is the tale of a perennially-overlooked princess trying to make space for herself in a world determined to make all her decisions for her.
Our heroine Thanh is the youngest daughter of an Empire that has fought fire with fire: Bình Hải needs its alliance with powerful Ephteria to resist encroachment from neighbouring countries, but the northerners’ corrosive diplomacy threatens their independence. The Empire is defended by Ephterian guns; now the Ephterians want the right to build forts to protect their merchants – and to be exempt from local laws when it suits them. It’s not hard to see where this will lead, and Thanh recognises it immediately.
The political power imbalance is mirrored in Thanh’s personal life. Her former lover Eldris – heir to the Ephterian throne – leads the diplomatic delegation, cool as snow and strong as steel. Eldris is quite clear what she wants from Thanh as well as from Bình Hải, and she isn’t used to being told no. Eldris makes Thanh feel seen, but she only sees what she chooses, only values what she can control. Still, Thanh can’t resist her, even if she may not really have Thanh’s best interests at heart.
Thanh as a protagonist pulled at my heartstrings from the start. Her entire life has been dictated by other women. She has been explicitly and implicitly told that she has little or no value until she has internalised it, deliberately diminishing herself. Fireheart Tiger is about Thanh gaining the confidence to assert herself, finding unexpected solace and support in her nightmares of fire.
Excellent smoke and mirrors – along with the familiar colonial playbook – lend the slight world-building heft; the fractured relationships bring it to life. I was expecting Fireheart Tiger to be a romance between two women with the odds stacked against them, overcoming colonial politics and prejudices to find unexpected balance. It isn’t – and I liked it all the more for where it goes instead (although I retained some reservations about power imbalances at the end), especially the way in which Thanh’s outsider status helps her see options her mother and sisters would be blinded to by their own prejudices.
And yes, I’m being deliberately oblique to avoid spoilers as this is a lovely little novella. Just go read it.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Fireheart Tiger is released today (February 9th).