Forbidden love between two princesses. Forbidden not because they are both women, but because they are princesses, and relations between their two states are tense and unequal. Thanh is a princess of Bình Hải, in the south, nominally superior to its northern neighbor but falling back in relative power because of the neighbor’s greater access to silver and guns. Eldris is a princess of Ephteria, the north country where Thanh had been sent by her mother the Empress to serve as a child hostage, and also to learn the ways of the barbarian neighbor, the better to contend with them when she was older and playing a role in statecraft.
They fell in love as teenagers while Thanh was in the foreign capital of Yosolis. Eldris had seemed aloof until the night a fire ravaged the royal palace. Nobody thought to look after Thanh, but she made it out on her own and even rescued a Bình Hải serving girl named Giang. That commanded the court’s attention, and Eldris’ more personal interest followed soon after. The affair ended, as it must, when Thanh returned home some years later. As Fireheart Tiger opens, Eldris has come to Bình Hải as part of a trade delegation, one that is pushing for greater privileges for Ephterian merchants and other concessions that will hem in Bình Hải’s independence.
De Bodard’s setting is East Asian, with Bình Hải bearing some resemblance to Vietnamese kingdoms. Its relations with Ephteria echo Chinese influence in Vietnam, the dynamics between China and Manchu kingdoms, as well as nineteenth-century British efforts to gain power in China itself. The story of intrigue and influence matches the story of former lovers brought suddenly back together. Does Eldris mean what she says? Does she even know what she wants? Can Thanh stay true to herself and true to her country? And then there are two things that refuse to line up neatly, even among the back and forth between Bình Hải and Ephteria, between Thanh and Eldris. First, nobody back in Yosolis seems to have hired a serving girl from Bình Hải, let alone one named Giang, and after the fire she seems to have somehow faded into the city. Second, unexplained small fires keep starting in Thanh’s presence. That’s puzzling at best and could be disastrous in the wooden imperial palace.
Fireheart Tiger depicts a matriarchal world, without making a big fuss about it, or claiming that such a world would be more peaceful or more just than a patriarchal world. If there’s an inverse Bechdel test, I am pretty sure that this novella fails it. There is at least one man — a eunuch — who speaks, but I am not sure that there are two, and I definitely do not think that they talk to each other. Same-sex attraction leaves the characters of the story similarly nonplussed.
I enjoyed Fireheart Tiger; it moves quickly, establishing both setting and characters in quick strokes while leaving room for a few mysteries. The diplomatic exchanges are more blunt than I would expect, but that is probably the result of telling the tale within the space of a novella. The fantastic elements arrive more slowly and are in keeping with the overall mythos set up as part of the world. It wraps up neatly, although the older generation is more accepting of the unorthodox than I might expect of a ruler accustomed to having everything run her way. It’s not sure to be a happily ever after, but at the end one is at least possible for both Thanh and Bình Hải.