Fireheart Tiger was everything that I didn’t know I needed — it was a breath of fresh air.
There is a saying I learned in film school: “there is no such thing as a good short film.” In essence, what this is trying to convey is that when you limit a broad concept like a narrative usually designed to be told over ninety minutes (or more) the results tend to be not-so-good. In my experience with novellas, I can’t help but feel that this applies. I’ve consumed a lot of novellas recently and while some of them are brilliantly written, all of them would have benefitted from being a longer prose novel. Just my opinion. However, Fireheart Tiger proves to be an exceptional exception. Aliette de Bodard chose to tell a compelling story that fits within these pages and doesn’t feel lacking in any form. It displays a keen skill and understanding of narrative form to tell a story in just over a hundred pages that packs as much punch as a full length novel.
As much as this is a romance, it’s also about abuse and is set against a political landscape where a nation is actively trying to fight against colonialism. On both fronts, Bodard fills the book with a necessary urgency — an anxiety — that feels uncomfortable. I call this necessary because it makes this feel incredibly real. While reading I puzzled out why I felt so odd at points and it was because Bodard replicated the anxiety many of us feel — I feel — when faced with ongoing, very current and insidious colonialism. One of the first descriptors that jumped into my mind for this book was “warmth” and I’ve been trying to find a way to justify it when so much of the book is about tough subjects. I think I can narrow it down to two key causes; the first is Giang. Giang is the alternative to what Thanh experiences with her mother and Eldris. She’s unadulterated fire — a warmth and a comfort that Thanh only knows with her. It’s the example of a balanced relationship. The second is the worldbuilding and writing. I just fell into this world immediately. Again, it amazes me that Bodard brought so much life and depth to this tale — there was scarce a detail out of place.
My personal experience with abuse is limited so I feel that I can’t speak to the representation in a meaningful form. However, it’s clear that Bodard put a lot of thought into setting up the abusive relationships that Thanh is caught up in. With Eldris, even when they’re having an incredibly romantic and vulnerable moment, Thanh is chastised almost for not answering correctly. You can see it in the way that Eldris questions Thanh — in the way Thanh chooses her answers. It’s a careful dance, known to many. She isn’t truly given a chance to speak and that’s only one of the many red flags. (Vagueness enters the chat so that I can limit how spoilery this review turns out to be.) Personally, I also saw elements of PTSD woven into the narrative and while this wasn’t explored in depth it was stark enough to be substantive — which just further adds to the deftly built dynamics between the characters.
Speaking of the characters, they all felt well-rounded and fleshed out — their motivations, their emotions all made sense and didn’t feel two dimensional at all (again, another risk with novellas). Thanh as a character is wonderfully complex — she’s struggling with her self-worth due to being used by her mother as a mere pawn. Additionally, at least at the start, I felt like there were some issues of internalized colorism that Thanh was dealing with. As a dark-skinned character, it seemed like she was getting validation from Eldris — it makes Thanh a messy character and I’m a huge advocate for those. This sets the scene incredibly well not only for a conversation about esteem but also about healthy relationships. At the heart of it, this is an intimate and beautifully woven f/f tale of love and acceptance, elevated with rich layers of worldbuilding and a lush understanding of the human condition.
I was provided a copy of this book for review by the publisher.