I’m at the point in my reading life with Aliette de Bodard where I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not her, it’s me.
Ms de Bodard is widely acclaimed, and I just don’t get it. Yes, I have loved every single one of the premises of the stories I’ve read of hers, with possibly my favorite being The Tea Master And The Detective, a futuristic Asian female riff on Sherlock Holmes. The premise of Fireheart Tiger is just as compelling: a Southern princess is sent as a child hostage to far Northern courts, only to return an adult disappointment to her Empress mother. Add in a fire elemental and a politically sticky (and sapphic!) love triangle and you have all the ingredients for wonder.
But from the very start, the characterizations make no sense. Thanh, our main character, feels that she’s derided for being “thoughtful” unlike her glamorous, take-charge sisters, and thus “fobbed off” with the task of diplomatic negotiations, and all I’m reading from this is that Thanh is whiny and has no appreciation of the importance of her job. I also feel that she confuses “thoughtfulness” with “introversion” as Thanh is nowhere near as smart as she believes. She is, in fact, deeply childish and shortsighted, as you can tell from the pitiful attempts she makes at diplomacy, all the while deriding her mother’s input (and she has the nerve to complain that the foreigners have no concept of filial piety, like oooookay.)
Actual spoilers abound for the rest of this review, so stop here if you’d rather skip them.
I think what really annoyed me about this novella was how the worldbuilding was so thoughtlessly done. Like what is it about the setting that allows the captain to threaten Thanh with blackmail? If, apparently, her mother doesn’t care that she’s a lesbian, why would she care that Thanh is consorting with the enemy? If a foreign princess would travel all that way to see her daughter, wouldn’t the Empress be at least cautiously interested in the prospect of gaining further concessions from her colonizer’s chief representative? And why would being a pyrokinetic be a shameful thing? Given the realpolitik inclinations of her mother, wouldn’t the ability to set things on fire with her mind be seen as an asset, and something Thanh would be trained in further? Mostly, Thanh’s ridiculous assumptions lean towards an “I just don’t want to tell my mother in case she makes me learn things” attitude. It’s aggravating.
I also thought the love triangle was cheesy as hell, when it wasn’t being downright creepy. I can’t get over the fact that Thanh and Giang kept calling each other Big and Li’l Sis, like ew, stop. And the whole thing with Eldris was so far-fetched. Declarations of undying love after so much time apart, and after a break up? It’s clear that Eldris is Going Through Some Things, and Thanh is deeply naive to think that any of those things are about her as a person instead of a symbol. Thoughtful, my ass. I was totally Team Empress, stifling frustrated sighs at my dumbass child and thinking wistfully of the plum provincial appointments where what mischief she did get up to could be managed and minimized.
This novella works if you want angsty fantasy love triangle stuff where the main character’s two suitors fight over her, with one being clearly better for her than the other (tho frankly it felt like the romance with Giang was just shoehorned in, more explicitly stated than developed, in another example of thoughtless story development.) I’m so annoyed: I love Southeast Asian settings, and examinations of politics and power, and difficult romances, but too much of this book was just nonsensical. Not my favorite for the Best Novella category for the 2022 Hugos. Doug liked it more than I did.
Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard was published February 9 2021 by tordotcom and is available from all good booksellers, including