Fireheart Tiger: The seduction and threat of power

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsFireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsFireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

Princess Thanh was a royal hostage for many years in the northern country of Ephteria before being sent back to her home country of Bình Hải. Two years after her return, she’s a disappointment to her mother, the empress, who hoped that Thanh’s time in Ephteria would give her insights into that country’s government and culture, making her more useful as a diplomat. It’s especially important now that an Ephterian delegation is arriving, certain to make demands and threats that will encroach on Bình Hải’s independence. But Thanh is a quiet, somewhat uncertain person — too thoughtful and discreet, according to her mother — rather than a power player. Thanh is also hiding a secret: since a disastrous fire in the Ephterian palace, small items in her vicinity have a mysterious habit of catching on fire. And the only real relationship she had in Ephteria was a clandestine love affair with Princess Eldris, the heir to the throne.

So Thanh is startled, and not entirely sure whether to be pleased, when Eldris shows up in the throne room as part of the Ephterian delegation. Eldris is confident and proud, the kind of princess who rescues herself rather than needing to be rescued. Her blue eyes still make Thanh’s heart skip a beat, and when Eldris follows Thanh out of the throne room, it’s clear that she still wants a relationship with Thanh. But political pressures, along with a blackmailing third party, threaten this sapphic connection between the princesses as well as Thanh’s position in her mother’s court. When the magical cause of the fires reveals itself to Thanh, it complicates her life even more, but offers Thanh some new choices and options when walls close in around her.

Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard

In Fireheart Tiger (2021), Aliette de Bodard spins a lushly-told tale set in an ancient Vietnamese type of kingdom, where a more powerful northern country of white people send their youth on Grand Tours to southern countries and have aims of colonizing those countries, extending their influence and power to other parts of the world. The power of Ephteria is echoed in the character of Princess Eldris, who sees what she wants and pushes to obtain it. Eldris makes a tempting offer to Thanh, but Thanh has some hesitations. While Thanh “knows” her mother won’t approve, the problems with their romance aren’t due to prejudice —homophobia seems to be completely absent from this world, unlike colonialism. So it’s never entirely clear why the Bình Hải empress wouldn’t jump at the chance to have one of her younger daughters married to the future ruler of Ephteria.

Eldris is a potent symbol of a colonizing power, but it struck me that she could have just as easily have been a male character by simply swapping out the pronouns, and the paternalistic aspects of the story and her character would have even made more sense if that had been been the case. I almost wonder if she was a man in an early draft of this novella, because there’s so very little about Eldris’s character that seems innately female. It left me a little dissatisfied with Eldris as a character. The third part of the love triangle was intriguing, but not convincing to me as a love interest for Thanh, because her actual character — equal parts vulnerable child and threatening monster — simply didn’t strike me at all as one to inspire romantic feelings.

So in the end, the political negotiations and conspiring were much more interesting to me than the romance(s) in Fireheart Tiger. If a lesbian love triangle is a big draw for a reader, this is definitely one to put on your list. If not, it’s a pretty minor part of the plot in one sense, but it does echo the larger themes of this novella in a very interesting way. In either case, there’s still much to recommend about Fireheart Tiger, between the lovely, evocative writing and the layered description of a more vulnerable country (and person) being simultaneously seduced and threatened by a more powerful one.

Published in February 2021. Award-winning author Aliette de Bodard returns with Fireheart Tiger, a powerful romantic fantasy that reads like The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle in a pre-colonial Vietnamese-esque world. A Most Anticipated Pick in 2021 for Buzzfeed | Mary Sue | Nerd Daily | FanFi Addict. Named Amazon Editor’s Pick for Best SFF – February 2021. Fire burns bright and has a long memory…. 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?

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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