Having spent the last two years digging into the world of novellas, I feel I am starting to get the hang of consistently identifying stories I am going to enjoy. Unfortunately, there are always going to be wild cards that slip through the cracks and ruin your day, much like Fireheart Tiger, by Aliette de Bodard, did to me. I really wanted to like this novella. As the back cover blurb will tell you, it is billed as – The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle – in a Vietnamese-inspired setting. I have just finished reading an Asian-inspired novella about fire and tigers that I loved (When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo), and I thought this was a sure thing. It also has a very alluring and well-illustrated cover that pulled me in, but it was a trap. Fireheart Tiger’s length ultimately is its undoing, as there isn’t enough heat here to light a match, let alone warm a heart.
The entire story of Tiger can be summed up in a few sentences. Princess Thanh has been living a life as a hostage in the Ephteria kingdom for most of her life. When she is young, she is witness to a brutal magical fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace. She also falls in love with the Ephterian queen in waiting, which is problematic for an enemy of the state, to say the least. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court and has found herself with a number of issues. First, her mother thinks her useless and tries to box her away from the world. Second, the magical fire that burned down the palace in her youth was caused by a powerful spirit that seems to have followed her home. And third, the magnetic queen in waiting, Eldris of Ephteria, is coming on a diplomatic trip to Thanh’s home that leaves our protagonist in a complicated situation. What will happen?
Fireheart Tiger would have definitely worked better as a larger novel. There is potential here, but it is absolutely not realized. The novella opens with its strongest sections. We find Thanh returning to her mother’s court where she is met with disgust and disapproval. The power dynamics at play feel promising, and though Thanh’s mother is a bit of a shallow character, I bought into their disagreements at first. However, this setup leads to a lot of self-pity and moping that never really goes away. This pity party is interrupted by occasional memories such as the Ephterian palace burning and a burgeoning romance with the Ephterian princess Eldris. The romance is very hard to wrap your head around, as Eldris’ personality is made up of how she looks physically. The romance feels a little sweet in the flashback (relevant for later), but Ephteria is a ruthless nation that is devouring those on its border and Thanh’s country/island/nation is next on the chopping block. I wish I could feel bad about this, but we get zero context or worldbuilding around Thanh’s place of origin, so I had a very hard time feeling bad for it.
Eldris comes to Thanh’s country and their romance picks up almost immediately, which is very jarring and feels unearned. As opposed to feeling sweet like in the flashback, Eldris is now creepy and manipulative for no other reason than to serve the plot. It is very unclear why Thanh even likes Eldris, given neither character has much of a personality. Thanh is purported to be clever and shy, but we see very little of the former. Her motivations supposedly revolve around protecting her country, but the majority of her inner monologue consists of railing against how her mother treats her.
On top of the characters being generally uncompelling, the dialogues were awkward. There was a lot of tonal mismatch and cliché that somehow exhausted me despite the short page length. The romance was utterly unconvincing, and possibly had slightly problematic intentions that I can’t discuss because of spoilers, and didn’t endear me to any of the characters in the slightest. Really the only things I did like were the premise, the inclusivity of the themes, and the ending which has a pretty decent twist. Otherwise, this is definitely a novella that you can skip.
Rating: Fireheart Tiger – 3.0/10