The Tiger's Daughter

by K. Arsenault Rivera

Cover image

Series: Their Bright Ascendancy #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: October 2017
ISBN: 0-7653-9254-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 493

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Shizuka is the heir to the Hokkaran Empire, daughter of the empire's most celebrated poet (her father) and its greatest soldier (her mother). Shefali is Qorin, one of the horse people, daughter of the ruler of the clans in all but name. Their mothers slayed a Demon General together and were the closest of friends. When they were introduced at the age of three, Shizuka tried to kill Shefali. Then they started sending letters to each other. By the time they met again at seven, they were inseparable.

This was the second epic fantasy novel inspired by China (well, more Japan in this case) and Mongolia that I read within a couple of days. The other one, Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts, was tightly controlled, careful, and structured, mixing character growth with foreboding glimpses of the antagonist. The Tiger's Daughter is a sprawling, rambling story with a ridiculous frame, full of larger-than-life personalities, expressions of devotion, dramatic stands, impulsive choices, angry denouncements, and unshakable loyalty. It has all the feelings about its characters, and it's much more interested in those feelings than in the structure of the story.

It's a glorious mess and I loved it unreservedly.

There is no way this book should have worked as well as it did, particularly on me. The story frame is an extended "as you know, Bob" retelling of events to a character who was there for 90% of them. Later in the book, there is an unhealing wound story line and some disturbing body horror, two of my least favorite fictional tropes. There were a few parts of this book I found difficult to read. And yet, I loved it anyway. There is something utterly delightful about Shizuka and Shefali's relationship: the rock-solid certainty of it underneath all the drama, the sense of both of them against the entire world if necessary, and the beautiful balancing of Shizuka's aggressive, dramatic arrogance and Shefali's quieter, cautious determination. The unique friendship between their mothers adds more depth, both as a role model and as a contrast. Under all of that sprawl, this book is doing so much work with unapologetic female power and female relationships.

One key to the success of The Tiger's Daughter is that it's unashamed of its feelings about its main characters. This is a book about two very different women and their brilliant, blazing relationship. That is what this book is about, not fighting off a great evil, saving the world, or tracing a coming-of-age story, and it is completely unapologetic about it. The two protagonists do not postpone relationship work to fix some larger problem. They don't sacrifice their relationship for the realm. Each of them is the most important thing in the world to the other, they act accordingly, and they dare the world to make something of it. It's not an uncomplicated relationship: there are moments of depression and despair, misunderstandings, and repeated cases of Shizuka promising things she can't deliver. But there's a solidity, a sense that this book is not going to rip this relationship apart because it would be more dramatic or would be a growth experience.

It's a type of love at first sight, it's perhaps not the most realistic relationship (although what does that mean in a world of demons and gods and strange powers?), but Rivera commits to it and doesn't back down, which gives the story a glorious strength.

I don't think this book would have existed in traditionally-published epic fantasy twenty years ago. You might see characters with Shizuka's skill with swords or Shefali's inability to miss an arrow shot, but Shizuka wouldn't also be the finest calligrapher in the land (and her mother would be the poet and her father the soldier, even if she were still female). And, more centrally, the characters would be focused towards a goal: fighting off a great evil, defending a kingdom, overthrowing a bad ruler. Relationships and story structure would have been bent towards a coming-of-age story, probably focused on a man, that was all about power and responsibility and training. Even urban fantasy, which is more willing to add romance, tended towards a similar arc.

This has changed, and I think that's wonderful. I don't have the critical background to pinpoint where it changed first (I have a personal theory that it's related to the growth of the fan-fiction community, but it's just a theory), but it's given us more books like this where the goal of the characters is to be happy together and glory in their power and skill. They're not apologetic about it, they don't have elder mentor figures in whose shadows they live and whose instructions they have to follow, and they make their own lessons from mistakes instead of being handed analysis by others. And they own every last decision, for good or for ill. There's no overriding fantasy, no guiding prophecy, no unexpected manifestation of powers outside of their control. Just decisions and consequences, where emotions and logic both play a part. This book doesn't have the structure of a romance, but it allows for romance motivations alongside epic fantasy motivations and it's a better story for it.

The Tiger's Daughter has some messy first novel problems, is occasionally overly dramatic, has several tropes I personally find uncomfortable to read, and is full of "most powerful in the land" fantasy wish fulfillment. But I adore these people and would happily read about them for days at a time. The ending is absurdly artificial and yet still had me grinning in delight. What's wrong with wish fulfillment, anyway? Isn't fulfilling wishes a good thing?

I've already pre-ordered the sequel.

This book reaches a definite conclusion, but leaves a lot on the table for a series. Followed by The Phoenix Empress.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-12-26

Last modified and spun 2017-12-27