Book: “Fireheart Tiger” by Aliette De Bodard
Publishing Info: Tor.com, February 2021
Where Did I get this Book: Edelweiss+
Book Description: Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace.
Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions.
Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?
Review: I’ll admit that this was another book that pulled me in on the strength of the cover art alone. I mean, that’s just a gorgeous cover, and there’s no second opinion about it! The description comparing it to “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “The Goblin Emperor” couldn’t help but add more intrigue. Plus, it’s a novella, which I haven’t read one of for quite a while. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite live up to all of those expectations!
Life as a political hostage is not easy, but then no one ever expects it to be. More surprising for Thanh, a princess returning home at long last, is that her homecoming proves to have its own set of challenges. Haunted by a first love now thrown back in her path who sees her own path forward, Thanh begins to understand that she will need to evolve. As a passive hostage, her life had been simple. But as princess, wielding great power and responsibility, she has choices, some of which could impact the future of her entire country.
While I can think of several good examples of novellas that I’ve read in the past (Seanan McGuire’s entire “Wayward Children” series, for example), unfortunately, this book highlights much of how to do them wrong. With the strict word count limit imposed on writing a shorter story, the author has to be incredibly efficient with world-building and character development. And even then, you can’t spend too much time on it, necessitating that both the world, story, and character are fairly interesting and compelling on their own from the very start. And in these key areas, this book fails the test.
Particularly, Thanh herself is a fairly paper-thin character. She doesn’t stand out in any bad ways, but she’s also not very interesting and lacks the charisma needed to drive a short story like this. Her lack of a strong voice makes the necessary info-dumping portions of the story stand out more than they should. Beyond that, I found the character to be a bit unlikable, seeming to wallow in self-pity more often than not and easily distracted by her own personal dramas over the larger state of affairs going on around her.
I also was very uninvested in the love interest and romance of this story. We simply aren’t given enough here to care. Ephteria’s attraction is almost entirely contained in the author’s telling rather than showing style. She has blue eyes…that’s about all we get. But Thanh spends pages upon pages obsessing over her, and the readers are stuck there with her, just not understanding why. The thin depiction of this relationship is mirrored in Thanh’s other relationships as well, with her mother, and with another young girl she befriends.
Beyond this, the writing didn’t work for me. I found it often to be jarring and uninspired, pulling out cliches when you’d most expect them and not helping to build any tension as the story worked its way through its plot points. The dialogue was at times particularly egregious, with some of the villains just one mustache-twirl away from being comical.
There may have been a good story here somewhere if the author had had more word-count to work on. But I’m also not convinced that the characters, world, or overall plot could have supported an increased page count. It’s kind of a chicken or the egg thing: did the page count limit the creativity of the characters and flow of the writing, or were these aspects weak on their own and would have just struggled more in a full-length novel?
Rating 6: Pretty disappointing overall. Though the cover is still one of the best I’ve seen in a while.
“Fireheart Tiger” is a new title so it isn’t on too many Goodreads list, but it is on Upcoming 2021 SFF Books With Female Leads or Co-Leads.
Find “Fireheart Tiger” at your library using WorldCat!