Book review: Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

With three stories crammed into a very small novella, extensive hints at worldbuilding, dialogue that is often incomplete and confusing, this book is a mess to read. The setting is tantalizingly exotic, some of the plot offers interesting parallels to historical events, but there’s simply too much going on for sufficient development. I usually like de Bodard’s work, but this title left me bewildered.

Thanth is a princess of the Binh Hai kingdom. As the third child, she is just good enough for the role of a hostage to the superior Ephterian kingdom, where she spends her teenage years. After she escapes a devastating palace fire, she develops an unlikely romance with the Ephterian heir to the throne, princess Eldris. Before much happens, however, she is returned to her mother.

Back in Binh Hai, a few years later, Thanth and her mother welcome the Ephterian delegation, which came to negotiate access to the kingdom and its markets. The Ephterians are ostensibly interested only in trade, but they bargain from a position of strength. Binh Hai knows that, and they are vainly trying to push back wherever they can. Eldris is part of the delegation, and she quickly resumes her romance with Thanth. This grows more serious, to the point where Eldris proposes marriage to Thanth, in exchange for the safety of Binh Hai.

In the meantime, Thanth finds out that the spontaneous combustion of items around her, which troubled her since the palace fire, is the work of a fire elemental that was responsible for the initial fire and is now hiding wherever Thanth goes. They strike a friendship. When Eldris finds out, she goes into a jealous rage, and nearly kills Thanth until the elemental intervenes. Thanth calls off all negotiations and hints at an alliance with other kingdoms against Ephteria.

On the surface, this is a story about a love triangle between Thanth, Eldris and the fire elemental. Each shows a different kind of love for the other, and Thanth needs to figure out what’s best for her. Unfortunately, this story plays out in incomplete conversations, vague hints and allusions, which just left me confused. I still don’t fully understand the relationship between the three, and if there was any character development involved, it passed clearly over my head.

One layer deeper, the novella offers an interesting sneak peak into a wonderful world of palace politics, warring kingdoms and magic. Put all together, this could be easily developed into a full-blown epic, so at the scale of this book, the hints left me with just the tiniest taste of what could have been.

Finally, and most interestingly for me, this was a story about economic and military imperialism. The entire relationship between Binh Hai and Ephteria, as well as the negotiations, are strongly reminiscent of the historical visit of Commodore Perry to Japan. He sailed to Japan, which had been closed to foreigners, and forced the opening of ports for foreign commercial vessels. In Fireheart Tiger, the leader of the negotiation team is also a ship captain, and she also hints at military threats to open Binh Hai for her kingdom, in order to open trade posts and protect its traders. Following this story would have made for a beautiful book, which I’d be very happy to pick up.

As it stands, however, the novella is a mess. It is trying to do too much in too small a space. In addition, I found the writing style confusing enough that I don’t think I drew the correct conclusions when I finished reading. I honestly don’t know the type of a person I could recommend Fireheart Tiger to.

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