Aliette de Bodard’s latest offering—a sapphic novella set in a fantastical world reminiscent of pre-colonial Vietnam—had me sold right from the premise itself, being billed as a “romantic fantasy that reads like The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle.” However, having reread it twice, I realized that, while the book has its own merits, the blurb is actually quite misleading.
The story, which spans for a little over a hundred pages and can be comfortably perused in a single sitting, follows Princess Thanh of Bình Hải as she navigates insidious court machinations and the entanglements of romantic love. Raised as a political pawn by her scheming mother, Thanh has never known what it feels to be safe, or to be loved without a hidden agenda. As a child, she was sent to the royal palace of Ephteria as a royal hostage, where she became enamored of the magnetic, blue-eyed Eldris. Years later, the memories of first love, and a mysterious fire that razed the palace, still haunt her, as she takes on the role of a political diplomat and negotiates alliances with the powerful kingdom of Ephteria—even as she struggles to retain the dwindling sovereignty of her home country.
Princess Thanh clearly makes for an interesting and refreshing protagonist. She’s neither assertive nor confident; instead, she is riddled with insecurities and low self-esteem, and constantly questions herself. Moreover, the trauma of surviving that mysterious fire, along with the servant girl Giang, affects her intensely, interrupting her thoughts as she goes about her daily affairs. She yearns to be seen and valued for who she is, rather than for the royalty she represents or the ideals she strives towards; but when her own mother routinely expresses her disappointment in Thanh, it is no surprise that Thanh quickly succumbs to the alluring charms of Eldris, the enemy ruler of Ephteria, seeking to make inroads in Bình Hải. “She’s so desperately lonely in what should be her home,” we read about her at one point.
The exploration of trauma, and its impact on romantic relationships and self-identity, is really where this novella shines. It is easy to understand why Thanh acts the way she does and how she struggles to do better. The dangers of being blinded by love and failing to notice the red flags in a toxic relationship are all touched upon, with sensitivity. While “strong” female protagonists (think Wonder Woman  or Captain Marvel )—and weak-willed characters who later reclaim their agency and become powerful (such as Vin from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series [2006 onwards])—are both common tropes in fantasy fiction now, characters like Thanh, who are defined by their struggles, softness, and vulnerability, are somewhat rare. Reading Fireheart Tiger and relating to Thanh’s thought processes made me realize just how much we need more characters like her, whose bravery and strength aren’t defined by aggression or grandiose displays of power, but rather by their capacity for kindness and willingness to learn and try harder, “like a gift that will melt or grow barbs at any moment.”
Although a daughter of a powerful queen, Thanh has little agency or power, and some of her emotional and impulsive choices end up being disastrous. Thanh starts off as weak-willed and unsure of herself, torn between her mother’s favor and Eldris’s romantic proposals—but both of these turn out to be adversaries, looking out for their own kingdoms with no regard for the lives that are hurt by their selfish actions. The fact a betrothal seemingly rooted in mutual romantic love becomes the front for a colonial conquest, is rather telling. Aliette de Bodard, in a stroke of genius and without relying on men or white people, succeeds in making an important point about patriarchy and colonialism, and the toxic interconnected nexus that the two systems generate.
And yet, despite its grimness, the novella doesn’t turn against love. Thanh finds solace in Giang, a serving girl who harbors a secret, and it is love—in all its pure and selfless glory, burning in an unexpected corner—which ultimately lights the right path for Thanh. The narrative reminds us that being soft and vulnerable isn’t necessarily a weakness, even if people in power make it out to be so: “What I learnt in Yosolis,” she says, “ is that even the oldest stone can burn.” However, the lesbian love triangle at the heart of the book is rather unconvincing and undeveloped. The writing heavily suffers from more telling than showing, and as such, the romance feels forced. We are simply told that Eldris and Thanh had an affair before, and later—when Eldris resumes her flirting—it feels like the next chapter of a love story that we were not privy to in the first place. The chemistry between Eldris and Thanh occasionally sizzles, but the flame never quite alights—which I think has less to do with Bodard’s style of writing (which is marvelously lush and poetic at times), and more to do with the limits of the novella form itself, which doesn’t allow a lot of room for exploration or detailing.
As a result, the worldbuilding is rather sparse, with the author offering only hints and tidbits of information. There are no maps; neighboring countries and factions of power are mentioned in passing, and the details of cultural and communal life are left to the reader’s imagination. From what little information is presented, I’d have dearly loved to know more about the cuisine, folklore, belief-systems, and most importantly the kind of magic permeating these fictional lands. There are mentions of sorcerers and ancient seals of course, but apart from a plot twist that sheds some light on the non-human creatures that populate this world, the reader has nothing to fill the gaps.
Similarly, we are told of Thanh’s other siblings, but we neither meet them nor discover the details of Thanh’s relationship with them, for example whether they are as fraught as the connection to her mother is. Eldris appears formidable, but—limited by Thanh’s point-of-view—we never get a close insight into the character and motivations of the queen of Ephteria. In fact, with the exception of Thanh, the three other main characters—Eldris, Thanh’s mother, and Giang—seem rather one-dimensional.
The elements of court intrigue reminded me of other novels, like Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen of Attolia (2000) and Sharon Shinn’s Summers At Castle Auburn (2001) (both of which were mostly aimed at a young-adult audience, as is de Bodard’s novel); but only in a longing/missing sort of way. The court machinations here are almost painfully straightforward. In fact, this is why I felt the comparisons to The Goblin Emperor (2014) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2001) were rather unfair: any novella would be too short to have the complexity of Katherine Addison’s plot, and this particular example lacks the delightfully fantastical nature of Diana Wynne Jones’s writing. Neither of these are necessarily bad things. But reading this novel’s blurb might set high expectations, which in turn might lead to a disappointing reading experience.
Of course, practically all the issues outlined above would have been easily resolved had the story been told in the form of a fully-fledged novel, beginning with Thanh’s childhood, to show how the ill-fated romance slowly develops; or perhaps with the memory of the disastrous fire setting the prologue, along with chapters from the points-of-view of the key characters, so that we get a deeper idea of the different political forces at play. A longer form would also have allowed a greater focus on Giang and her backstory; her arrival in the middle of the tale, which seems very conveniently timed, could have had some build-up. In fact, after finishing the story, I was left strangely dissatisfied, with a passive curiosity about the characters and an intense longing for more of this fictional world. But the dramatic ending actually leaves the door open for a sequel or two, and it would be really interesting and hopeful if de Bodard later chooses to return to this universe to tell more stories.
All that being said, there’s still quite a lot to like in Fireheart Tiger as it exists. De Bodard uses the present tense masterfully to tell a story about love and colonialism, that feels both immediate and devastating; her prose is beautiful and poetic, with a lilting cadence to it; Thanh’s loneliness, confusion ,and self-questioning is marvelously rendered, and the scene in which Giang and Thanh share a few steamed buns is one of my favorites, full of tenderness and affection. Plus, I can’t recall coming across a male character in the story; instead, this world is completely dominated by powerful women, each with their own complexities and nuances, and it is always exhilarating to see an exploration of a matriarchal world in fiction.
Thus, while the different ingredients (court intrigue, enemies-to-lovers romance with a queer twist, female protagonists) may feel a little half-baked, the tale itself is pretty interesting and engaging for the most part. Perhaps it is not very suitable for lovers of high fantasy with intricate world-building (think J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan, or Sanderson); but I’d recommend Fireheart Tiger to those who enjoy the novella form and shorter fiction, as long as they’re not too taken in by the blurb.