Review: When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

Review: When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi VoWhen the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (The Singing Hills Cycle, #2) by Nghi Vo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Singing Hills Cycle #2
Pages: 128
Published by Tordotcom on December 8, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes &

"Dangerous, subtle, unexpected and familiar, angry and ferocious and hopeful. . . . The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a remarkable accomplishment of storytelling."—NPR
The cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover—a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty—and discover how truth can survive becoming history.
Nghi Vo returns to the empire of Ahn and The Singing Hills Cycle in this mesmerizing, lush standalone follow-up to The Empress of Salt and Fortune

My Review:

Like the first book in the Singing Hills Cycle, the utterly marvelous The Empress of Salt and Stars, this is a story that compels the reader to think and mull and ponder well after the final page is turned.

Part of what this reader was thinking and mulling and pondering was a phrase that kept cycling through my head, about “the smile on the face of the tiger”. I knew it came from somewhere – hence the cycling, so I had to look up the origin.

It’s a famous limerick, variously attributed to either Lear or the extremely prolific Anon, but is generally acknowledged to have been written by William Cosmo Monkhouse in the late 19th century.

Here it is in full:

There was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is a story about the smile on the face of the tiger. But as the story progresses, the question about exactly who is riding on which tiger, and which tiger is smiling at the end, changes.

There’s still a smile on the face of a tiger. But an even bigger smile on the face of an even larger animal. And a smile on the face of the humans who live to tell the story another day.

Escape Rating A: This is a story within a story. An academic is relating the story of the legendary tiger to an equally magnificent tiger – who is also telling the story to the academic. Both tale tellers have agendas. Chih wants to survive, The tiger Ho Sinh Loan wants the academic to relate the “correct” version of the tale, so that she can be assured that the majestic nature of her legendary kin is being properly presented to the humans. Sinh Loan may also want to eat the academic and their companions for dinner – and certainly will if the tale is told too incorrectly.

The night becomes a battle of wits and wills, as Chih both wants to live AND wants this new version of a well-known story. After all, that is their job, to collect such stories for the Singing Hills Abbey from which they came.

So the story is told, and adjusted, and told. As Chih hems and haws, obfuscates, and prays. And as their companions listen for the sound of approaching hoofbeats from the cavalry that they desperately hope will come to rescue them all in time for it to do them any good. And if not, Chih will at least leave her notes for the next academic to find.

Like its predecessor, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, this is a tiny box of a tale, short in length but utterly and charmingly encompassed within its brief length. And yet, even though it finishes satisfactorily as a story and doesn’t need to have been any longer, it still leaves the reader wishing there was more.

Not exactly of this story, because it is completely complete, but of this world. The cleric Chih who tells the story of the legendary tiger Ho Thi Thao to her overly punctilious tiger audience is a sibling to Scheherazade, telling the tale in the hopes of spinning it out long enough to spare their own life and the lives of their companions. Chih is a collector of tales, and obviously has more of them to tell. The rather bloody conclusion of this particular story left this reader wanting to hear the rest.