Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Published by Tordotcom on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org
Award-winning author Aliette de Bodard returns with a powerful romantic fantasy that reads like The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle in a pre-colonial Vietnamese-esque world.
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 was expecting this to remind me of When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, and it did, but not because of the tiger. It’s more that it reminded me of both of the books in the Singing Hills Cycle, not just Tiger but also the first book, The Empress of Salt and Fortune. Now that I think about it, it reminds me much more of Empress, in spite of that Tiger.
Like The Empress of Salt and Fortune, this feels like a story that is creating a legend along with its secondary world. And both stories feature women that their contemporaries saw as disposable and forgettable.
Thanh has spent her whole life living under her mother the empress’ disapproving eye – and thumb. Her accomplishments, her achievements, her very person swallowed up by the long shadows cast by her two older, more accomplished, more favored sisters.
Even the one time that Thanh was sent away in order to further the goals of her empire and empress, she failed to impress, she failed to learn, and she was sent home early and in disgrace.
But Thanh brought back more than anyone imagined from her time as a political hostage in powerful, dominant Ephteria.
The love, or at least the romantic obsession, of Ephteria’s Crown Princess Eldris, and the fire that destroyed the royal palace where she was held captive for her country’s “good” behavior.
Now Ephteria has come to Thanh’s home, to take possession of what she believes is hers by right of her superior power. Not just Thanh, but also her country. Not as outright conquest, but through the latest in a long list of political maneuvers where Eptheria trades guns for the autonomy of countries, including Thanh’s, piece by inexorable piece.
Until Thanh says “No”. To her mother, to Eldris, to Ephteria. And finally embraces the fire at the heart of the tiger – and her own.
Escape Rating A-: While a romance occurs, or rather an affair occurred and as the story ends it seems like a real romance is about to happen, this is not a romance. It’s a coming-of-age and/or coming-into-power story.
In fact, it’s Thanh’s realization about the truth of her relationship with Eldris that helps her come into her power. Her own power and not power derived from her relationship to anyone else.
Because this is also a story about politics and history. These events may take place in a fantasy setting, but this has all happened before and it will all happen again. Specifically, what is happening sounds all too much like the way that the British Raj swallowed up India, and the way that the British and other Western forces inserted themselves into China.
So it’s clear what the Ephterians want. They want control – and they’re taking it – one concession at a time. In order to maintain her country’s security, Thanh’s mother needs to acquire more weapons to protect herself from the surrounding regions. But Ephteria encroaches just a little bit more on that precious independence in every negotiation and with every shipment.
Eldris’ desire for Thanh, to capture the one who got away, is part and parcel of that encroachment. Their relationship was never about love – at least not on Eldris’ part no matter what she might call it. It’s always and only been about possession, and eventually, subjugation. A situation that Thanh almost falls back into, with eyes wide shut, in order to save her country the only way she knows how, by giving in to the greater power – in this case the power of Eldris – in order to stave off the depredations of an even greater threat, Ephteria’s armies.
So this whole story revolves around the politics of the relationship of Thanh’s subservient country to Eldris’ dominant one, and it’s personified in the relationship between Thanh and Eldris.
But Thanh can only come into her power when she steps away from that subservient path, subservient to both her mother and Eldris. When Thanh takes hold of the reins of her own life, of the fire in her own heart and mind and soul, she’s able to forge a new path for her country and most of all, for herself.
And that’s what sets this story on fire – along with the heart of fire elemental in the shape of a tiger.