I’ve read a mountain of books in my lifetime. I may not get through as many in a year as I did when I was fourteen and the only responsibilities I had were homework and chores, but I still read a lot. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book as vivid and rich as The Tiger’s Daughter. The lyrical prose, deeply human, fleshed-out characters—all of these are things The Tiger’s Daughter does well. The things Rivera can do with description make my heart sing. It’s also pretty damn gay, so that makes an exquisite story even more precious.
But it’s not a home-run by any means, especially where worldbuilding is concerned. As much as I went in ready to love it wholeheartedly, I find myself conflicted now that I’ve finished it.
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown
Even gods can be slain.
The Hokkaran empire has conquered every land within their bold reach, using a combination of imperial might and sabotage to devastate and subjugate the nomadic Qorin tribes.
Generations later, the decaying imperial line has led to rampant corruption and ruined fields—and worst of all, the demons once kept at bay by the Hokkaran Emperor have taken advantage of the crumbling protective border walls and begun to overrun villages and forests.
But against all odds, a destined pair of warriors rise from the ashes, the last hope of a devastated people and a fractured nation. This is the story of Barsalyya Shefali and O-Shizuka, who are unafraid to face the demons. They will save their world and become legends—or they will die trying.
The Good Stuff
The majority of the novel is written in epistolary style, as Shefali recounts the shared history she and O-Shizuka have: their adventures, their fights against demons and bandits, and how they fall in love. It is a love letter penned by a character who barely speaks more than five words together on page, which sounds like it wouldn’t work, but it does. There are scenes from the ‘present’—O-Shizuka reading these letters—sprinkled in, so even from the beginning we know a few aspects of where the story-within-the-story is going.
Rivera makes good use of the second person narrative voice, and that’s saying something, because I normally hate second person more than even first person point of view. It does require buying into the conceit of Shefali writing letters about certain events that O-Shizuka was present for. However, that didn’t bring me out of it the way it did for other reviewers whose responses I’ve read. By the time I got to the end, Shefali’s purpose in writing made perfect sense to me. I admit, I’m a sucker for the thematic significance of her writing her love story so beautifully when she doesn’t speak much verbally and admits to struggling with writing as well.
Reading a story with two queer, non-white women as protagonists is refreshing as hell. Korrasami is still the bar for me for intersectional queer female representation on TV, so when I heard about The Tiger’s Daughter, Ι was immediately intrigued. While there are significant flaws to the cultural underpinnings of the protagonists (which I’ll address below), I do want to applaud Rivera for offering diverse queer representation. Having two queer protagonists of color is impressive, and the publication of The Tiger’s Daughter is a sign that much is changing for the better in young adult fiction. To this aspect, I say “bravo!” and “more please!”.
As characters, I found both Shefali and O-Shizuka engaging and interesting. I was surprised at how much I learned about Shefali from the epistolary format, as I’ve always found second person to be distancing. I did not find it so here. Shefali’s writing is surprisingly vulnerable for someone who shares so little of themselves with others. Yet this is hardly surprising the more you read. I got the impression right away that Shefali was only this open, free, and emotive where O-Shizuka was concerned, and the story did not let me down in that regard.
The contrast between O-Shizuka’s fierce temper and strong will and Shefali’s quiet power pulled me in right away. They’re very different characters, but they work well as foils in both a literary sense and as romantic and battle partners. O-Shizuka can speak volumes with only a few words, can cut to the quick with a retort as quick as her swordplay. Shefali may not speak aloud much, but we know she’s thinking and feeling far more than she says because we’re with her as she relates it. O-Shizuka is hot as fire and fluid as water where Shefali is solid as earth and quick as the wind. They temper each other, refine each other, and better each other with every struggle they face.
While I expected more action and focus on the demonic corruption, I was not disappointed by the love story. This is impressive, because I don’t usually like when romance takes over the main plot. To me, their love story was organically woven into the rest of what they encounter and fit well with the tone and pace of the narrative. I thought the love scene in the middle was quite lovely. I’m picky about sex scenes, but I really liked how this one was done. Tasteful, steamy, and still focused on the emotions between the characters more than the actions themselves. Just how I like it.
Overall, it felt less like a ~romance~ and more like two people growing into and toward each other. They’re destined to be together, their selves and futures intertwined from their birth, “like two pine needles.” They just also happen to love each other romantically and enjoy sexy times together. Oh, and fighting tigers, demons, and bandits together.
It’s a long book and doesn’t get anywhere quickly. While some may find it dense or plodding, I prefer the term stately. Like a royal procession, it’s regal in its pace and always stays focused on its ultimate goal. A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons are my favorite of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels thus far, so it should come to no surprise that I enjoy a slowly-paced book if it’s beautifully written and filled with symbolism and three-dimensional characters. I found The Tiger’s Daughter to be all of these things. If you’re a lover of rich language and character work like me, the pace is worth it. However, I can see how this could be a turn-off for someone looking for more of an action-packed tale of battling demons left and right.
As I mentioned previously, there aren’t as many demon slayings as one would expect based on the official descriptions. However, I do think it builds a great deal of anticipation for the next two books (this is a planned trilogy). Most significant to me is the growing sense of decay and corruption that mirrors Shefali’s struggle. She chooses to battle inside her mind what the Emperor has chosen to ignore and gloss over in the kingdom. There’s a deep sense of wrongness about the world, of decay that seeps into everything. The corruption seeks to turn even our protagonists evil. It may be a slow start, but I hope that by the time we get to the second and third books, there will be a payoff.
I am of two minds when it comes to the setting. First, there are certain minor nitpicks that may just be personal. Shefali using the term ‘flat-faced’ to describe herself was jarring given how intense of an insult this is for many women of East Asian descent. “Ricetongue” didn’t work well as a slur for me without proper in-universe explanation. I can think of a couple possibilities that would have worked. Rice requires a sedentary lifestyle to cultivate, so that could be a way for the Qorin to disparage the lifestyle of people who hate them. If the Hokkarans had conscripted conquered people groups, Qorin included, to work the rice paddies ‘ricetongue’ would also function as a means of calling out their oppression. As it stands, boiling down a Japanese-coded culture to an insult based entirely on them eating rice felt simplistic.
(A female reviewer of Japanese descent called Laurelinvanyar on Goodreads has a pretty thorough takedown of other aspects that didn’t stand out to me. Even if you disagree with her conclusions, I highly recommend reading her review as well as the comment thread just to be aware.)
Second, the reliance upon real-world history complicates the issue. Inspiration is one thing, but with how closely Rivera mirrors historical cultures, she opens herself up to critiques of appropriation even where none is intended. If you’re 9/10ths of a way toward Mongols by any other name, the 1/10 that doesn’t line up is going to stand out. At the same time, had she been less detailed certain readers likely would have decried her for being disrespectful or inaccurate. It’s a writing catch-22.
At the end of the day, The Tiger’s Daughter sometimes feels closer to historical fiction than a true fantasy setting, but it’s not close enough to be a reflection on those historical issues. While I don’t think she intended it to be so, I understand why some readers might find her execution of an Asian-inspired setting to be othering or exotifying even if that’s not the intent. And, just because she didn’t intend it doesn’t mean it’s not worth critiquing.
At the same time, I applaud her willingness to work outside of the Western, Euro-centric, medievalesque setting that pervades most high fantasy. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’m tired of that. I want more and different cultural inspiration for high fantasy. I want to see high fantasy protagonists from cultures around the world and throughout history. For all that it’s opened her up to criticism, Rivera did what many high fantasy authors have failed to do and craft a world entirely populated by people of color with two queer female characters as protagonists. And my guess is she did so because she cares about the representation of marginalized communities. Even if readers don’t like her direction, she did her research, which, again is more than can be said for many cishet white male authors writing high fantasy with non-western cultures.
Final Score: I’m Torn
Were it not for my ambivalence about the worldbuilding, this would be the exact kind of story I want from fantasy literature. It’s immersive, expansive, and vivid. For the hours I spent reading this, I felt like I was in another world. Plus, I am all about divine girlfriends breaking barriers and killing demons.
At the same time, the cultural inspiration does have it’s complicating and complicated factors. The closeness to actual historical parallels invites deeper scrutiny than a less direct adaptation would have, and it may not come out as pristine as intended. I don’t think any of it stemmed from bad motives, but I think this was in need of a sensitivity reader (or another pass with a different one if one was consulted). My sincere hope is that Rivera will understand where the critique of her use of worldbuilding stems from, listen, and find a way to make tweaks in the sequel, The Phoenix Empress, which is scheduled for publication in August, 2018.
In short, there are a lot of things I really like about this book, and there is space for it to do even better.
[Editor’s Note: This review has been modified from it’s original to better reflect the author’s view of the book.]