Book Review: Fireheart Tiger By Aliette de Bodard Is A Smoldering Novella About Power And Control
Aliette de Bodard has made a name for herself in the genre fiction community with fantasy series like Obsidian and Blood, and Dominion of the Fallen. But her newest story is a bit different from the long epic fantasy she is known for. Fireheart Tiger is a standalone novella, rich in subtle worldbuilding that was inspired by pre-colonial Vietnam. It’s a gorgeous, bittersweet love story and a rich exploration of character identity. Let’s dive into Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard, but beware of some spoilers ahead.
Fireheart Tiger Is A Story About Powerful Women and Young Love
Image via Tor/Forge
A synopsis from Tor tells us the following about Fireheart Tiger 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?”
Aliette de Bodard Delivered a Character-Driven Novella With Excellent Worldbuilding
Photo by Courtnie Tosana via Unsplash
The focal point of Fireheart Tiger is the relationship between Thanh and her first lover Eldris. The two of them formed a connection when Thanh was living in Ephteria as a royal hostage. The events of the story pick up several years after she has left the country and Eldris behind, and returned home to her own court.
Aliette de Bodard puts in some wonderfully nuanced work in laying out the backstory of the two royals in Fireheart Tiger. She explores the historical tensions between the countries of Bình Hải and Ephteria, drawing from real-world history and culture. This information is laid out succinctly and without drawing too much attention away from the characters at the heart of the story. It would be easy to get bogged down in the worldbuilding here. To spend time explaining all of the history and politicking that led to this point. But de Bodard doesn’t get lost in those details, instead focusing in on the characters to ensure that they are vividly drawn and complex individuals.
There is a third character that is also vital to the story: a fire elemental who once saved Thanh’s life when a fire destroyed the Ephterian palace years earlier. She takes the shape of a young serving girl named Giang, and over the course of the story she becomes more and more human. She feels as humans do, and struggles to name these emotions that are taking hold of her. Giang’s relationship with Thanh is a spark that ignites much of the conflict towards the end of the story.
A Fire Elemental With a Burning Heart
Photo by Cathal Mac an Bheatha via Unsplash
In the beginning of the novella, Thanh is haunted by the memory of the fire that destroyed the Epheterian palace. She clearly suffers from some post-traumatic stress, constantly reliving the night of the fire in her head. Thanh is also fearful of a strange new power that seems to have come home with her from that foreign land. Things around her keep spontaneously bursting into flame, and it is not something that she can control. She soon discovers that the fire elemental responsible for burning down the palace came home with her, after saving her life and being treated with kindness by Thanh.
Despite being a powerful magical being, there is a vulnerability and powerlessness to the character of Giang that is surprising. There are moments when we can see what kind of power she can wield, the intensity of her flame. She is trying to figure out the human world that she has been thrown into. This is a character who should be terrifying, a raw elemental force. But she’s not, she is kind and loving and cares deeply for Thanh.
A Moving Story About Power and Control in Relationships
Photo by Mariano Nocetti via Unsplash
In contrast to Giang, the character of Eldris is a human woman who appears to deeply love Thanh. However, there is ugliness simmering beneath the surface. Eldris is a princess from a far more powerful country. And she wields her authority over others (including Thanh) in questionable ways. At first blush, Thanh only sees the beauty and kindness that Eldris has shown her. Thanh is enraptured by their passion, and blinded by her own love. But when Eldris finds out about Giang, she becomes violently jealous and angry. In a single moment, she transforms from the gentle lover that Thanh has known, into a domestic abuser.
The author handles this situation with delicacy and care. In exploring the power dynamics between the two women, de Bodard also mirrors the complicated relationship between their two countries. There is a powerful underlying message about exploitation. And how easy it is to lose one’s identity in an abusive relationship. The moment when Thanh fully comes into her own, and stands up to Eldris is a powerful moment of vindication for anyone who has suffered from this type of situation.
Fireheart Tiger Is Full of Powerful Women
Image via Tor/Forge
It was not until I sat down to write this review that I realized that there are virtually no male characters in this story. The women of Fireheart Tiger are so well-drawn and nuanced, that I didn’t even notice (or miss) a male protagonist. And the women of this world also wield the power. Thanh’s formidable mother – the Empress – acts as adversary for much of the story. Thanh believes herself to be powerless and unimportant. But only through this trial by fire can she learn her own self-worth, and stand up to those who would take away her power.
The only critique I have for Fireheart Tiger is that Giang could used more character development. She is clearly fundamental to the story, but we don’t know much about her nature outside of her relationship with Thanh. The other critique would be that this story left me wanting so much more. I want to know what happens to Thanh and Giang after the end of the story. I would love to spend more time in the world that Aliette de Bodard created, and see what happens with the two rival kingdom. Perhaps this novella is the start of another larger series from the author. But it still stands completely on its own as a beautifully written novella. Fans of other novels we’ve previously reviewed like The Once & Future Witches, or Black Sun will find a lot to love about Fireheart Tiger.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.