Aliette de Bodard’s prose swept me through Fireheart Tiger like a single brushstroke of many beautiful strands toward a strong conclusion that came just a little too easily and a little too soon. She is a master at plunging the reader at once into a richly imagined fantasy world yet without distracting the mind with too many details from the central characters and the conflict driving the action.
Within the first few pages of Fireheart Tiger, an all too brief novella, we know the essential choices facing Thanh, a princess of a Vietnam-like country, who is the least favored member of her imperial family.
Once a teenage hostage at the court of a greater power, Ephteria, she would have died there in a palace fire if not for the action of Giang, a servant girl. Now home in Bình Hải, Thanh may be older, but believes she is regarded as a disappointment by her mother, the Empress. Yet she has been assigned to lead negotiations with representatives from Ephteria, who are expected to compel the weaker country to do what it wants.
Leading the delegation, however, is Eldris, the beautiful and brilliant princess of Ephteria, with whom Thanh had a teenage love affair. That attraction soon revives, throwing Thanh into confusion about the depth of her feelings for someone who may want her only to serve a political agenda. Questions of colonialism and power relationships are woven through an intensely romantic fantasy.
Still recovering from the trauma of nearly perishing in a fire, Thanh tends to feel helpless, undeserving, someone who doesn’t matter. She believes she is outmatched by both Eldris and her mother, both of whom use their power ruthlessly when they have to. But Thanh begins to find new strength from her faithful friend Giang who is much more than she seems.
We see this world from Thanh’s perspective and soon realize that she has much greater inner strength than she sees in herself. Coming to that understanding is her journey in this story, but her achievement of insight about herself comes about by reliance on moments of epiphany. It’s hard to make that sort of climactic moment altogether convincing without more space and more testing of her character.
Still, I am swept away by the power and beauty of Aliette de Bodard’s writing. Fire is the multi-layered theme of this story. It is at once a magical elemental being, an external nightmarish force and a metaphor for the internal power and strength that Thanh needs to recognize and put to use. Fire pervades the language in images that occur at times as small reminders of a force Thanh fears and wants to run from, at others as a raging power that threatens to destroy everything.
The intimate scenes between Thanh and Eldris and with Giang wonderfully capture the deep feelings these characters arouse in each other. And Thanh’s interactions with her crafty mother come across in a brilliant scene as the two play a chess game that sees them not only matching wits but probing the nature of their relationship.
Here is one small example of how de Bodard creates a deep sense of the reality of the world of this novella without piling up endless details. Instead, the surroundings are infused with the dynamic that relates characters to each other.
As Thanh runs, she feels Giang: in the lanterns overhead, in the wash of sunlight like bloodred fingers across the sky, in each and every gleam of light on lacquered pillars.Fireheart Tiger, Kindle edition, page 74
The author doesn’t need to stop and describe the setting of the rooms. We see it come alive as Thanh runs through the palace and feels the presence of Giang in the glimmering reflections. Aliette de Bodard’s writing is full of beautiful moments like this that bring the world and characters into sharp focus as they play off each other.
The ending may seem a little too facile, but how many writers can immerse a reader in a complex drama created in such a short space? Always worth reading.