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Book Review: The Tiger's Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera

Friday, January 26, 2018 - 07:00

My impressions of this book shifted a lot during the process or reading it. For much of the middle, I was afraid it was going to be one of those “liked but didn’t love” books, and then things really ramped up in the last couple of chapters. Ramped up almost too quickly, in fact, but the shift meant that I was left with a much stronger liking for the book than I thought I would.

The Tiger’s Daughter is a historically-inspired fantasy drawing on various Asian cultures: the dominant Hokkaran empire is primarily Japanese in inspiration, providing one of the protagonists, Shizuka, the niece and heir-apparant of the emperor, while the other protagonist, Shefali, is Qorin which is clearly a Mongolian-inspired culture. Other real-world historic Asian cultures provide less central worldbuilding and minor characters. The setting is simultaneously clearly drawing on this real-world history, while just as clearly placing it in an entirely invented world. (For one thing, the geography is entirely different, as are essential aspects of the social structures. Oh, and there’s magic and demons.) This wholesale borrowing has made some readers uncomfortable about appropriation issues. I don’t have the background to speak to that question one way or another. I found the worldbuilding solid, detailed, and nuanced and was happy that it located the story in a clearly secondary world as a distancing function. But it isn’t my cultures being borrowed in this way (nor is it the author’s culture, which is one of the concerns that has been raised). With that acknowledged, I’m going to talk about the story-that-it-is.

The protagonists are Chosen Ones, born almost simultaneously to mothers who were not only sworn friends, but also powerful and skilled warriors in their respective (and warring) cultures. The force that initially brought them together was the threat of malevolent demons that infect their human victims with “black blood”, turning them demonic in turn. The larger arc of Shizuka and Shefali’s stories (larger than this one book) is how they fight against the demons.

But this is a coming-of-age story, a story of origins. To some extent, an extended back-story for what comes after. That sense of back-story comes in part from the framing structure, with the majority of the text being now-Empress Shizuka (that isn’t her imperial name, but I’m going to stick to their original names to avoid confusion) reading an extended set of letters sent to her by Shefali that recounts their life together, their adventures and sorrows, their gradually developing love story, and the events that tore them apart. The letters are interspersed with Shizuka’s thoughts and interactions in the “now” as she is reading the letters. This device means that much of the narrative is in the second person--an ambitiously perilous voice to attempt, especially in a debut novel.

I have to say that, unlike some readers, this narrative device wasn’t an issue for me. The epistolary format rapidly became an invisible background. I had a certain amount of confusion about the relationship of the framing story to the main narrative, but it was resolved for me by the end. (A few offhand references at the beginning become far more meaningful in the last pages, well after most readers will have completely forgotten about them. A re-read of this book would be an entirely different story than a first read.)

The magical talents of the two protagonists felt seriously underplayed (though I expect they will be more significant in the sequel), serving primarily to make them functionally invulnerable to the perils and enemies they face. That might have felt more artificial if it weren't that the framing story clearly demonstrated that both characters are still alive at the end. Maybe I needed more sense that they truly were Chosen Ones, divinely gifted, rather than feeling that they were simply authorially-gifted. They would have been interesting characters without those gifts, and the gifts seemed to come and go in relevance as the plot required.

I very much enjoyed the slow-burn development of the romance between the two young women, and even more so, the carefully layered-in evidence of other same-sex relationships in the world, and the framing of the roadblocks to their romantic partnership as being political and class-based (“she’s going to be an empress, I’m a barbarian nobody”) rather than being moralistic. One very late twist to the relationship did feel like it came out of nowhere, rather than having been foreshadowed as a possibility, and this brings me to the structural pacing of the story.

During the long middle section of the novel--the point where I was certain it was going to be a “liked it but didn’t love it” book--we get a lot of everyday life, world-building, minor adventures and side-quests, and only very late in the game do we get the introduction of the events that build to the major conflict. Then, in the course of a very short period, everything builds to a climax, a big pile of Important Events happen, disaster strikes...and then it’s years later, the disaster is redeemed and the furniture gets rearranged for the sequel. It was as if the author said, "Oh shit, I have to wrap this up soon and I still have to throw in the Big Fight, the Long Separation, and the Joyous Reunion. We’re 85% through the story when we the ball gets rolling for the climax. And that’s very late indeed, because I came awfully close to DNFing the book in the long middle section. It was good, but it didn’t feel like it was going anywhere.

In summary: world-building, excellent (with the caveats on cultural borrowing mentioned above); character premises, good but with the magical elements a bit uneven; pacing, nearly a fatal flaw; narrative style, worked for me and delightfully different; love story, immensely satisfying.

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