by Aliette de Bodard
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?
I think it’s time for me to admit that Aliette de Bodard’s work simply isn’t for me. I’ve previously tried getting into two of her novellas, and haven’t gelled with her writing style, but this story sounded so up my street. I did at least finish this novella, but it left me pretty underwhelmed, if I’m being perfectly honest, and I don’t think that’s the fault of the author so much as it’s the fault of the marketing team. If you compare a story to my favourite novel of all time, I’m expecting to love it, and if you compare it to my favourite novel and another story that I love a lot, I’m hoping for a five star read.
Look I get why Fireheart Tiger is compared to both The Goblin Emperor and Howl’s Moving Castle, but I still don’t think those comparisons are entirely accurate. Like Maia, Thanh is a young royal trying to find the balance between doing what’s best for her people while also not losing herself in the process, except that we don’t really learn enough about Thanh, or her relationship with her country and her own court, for this to be important. Thanh spent her formative years in another country’s court, essentially as a political hostage, and the idea of her as an exotic ‘native’ is interesting, but we don’t get to see how she fared at this other court first-hand, only through her memories, and we also don’t really get an idea of how she feels about her own country and, more importantly, its people. As for Howl’s Moving Castle, the only similarities these two stories seem to have is that they both involve a fire demon, and both fire demons are very different in terms of their personalities and temperaments.
I don’t want to spend my whole review talking about how Fireheart Tiger is not two other stories, because that’s not fair to what this story is, but I picked this novella up specifically because it was compared to those two other stories, and if other people have done the same this story isn’t necessarily getting into the hands of people who are going to love it. People who aren’t already huge fans of de Bodard’s work, of course, because she’s already a very popular writer.
Outside of that quibble, though, this novella didn’t make me feel anything. I could sympathise with Thanh and how she’s been made to feel as though she doesn’t matter because of the way she’s been treated by the people around her, but I finished this story feeling like I still didn’t know anything about her or her country. I had no idea what made Thanh’s court any different to Eldris’s–other than the size, I’m assuming–and I didn’t find the palace particularly well described or, again, compared to Eldris’s palace (as in its architecture etc. that could signify cultural differences) in any way. I found the villains rather cartoon-ish, which is a shame when it’s cutting out toxic and coercive people that’s at the centre of this novella, and even though I know it makes me sound like a terrible human, I spent the majority of this story struggling to care.
It simply wasn’t for me, which is such a shame, but I’m glad I at least know that now!