I had plenty of time on my flight to Australia to indulge in some new reading, and I decided to do that by reading one of the most intriguing books of 2017. That would be the new fantasy novel, The Tiger's Daughter, by K Arsenault Rivera.
The book is supposed to be the opening novel of a series (Their Bright Ascendancy) and as an opener, it does a good job of reeling you in.
I was attracted to the novel for a number of reasons. The first is because I heard it was a novel with a series of main characters who were lesbians, which as the premise of a fantasy novel is in and of itself unique. The second is that it is set in a fantasy Asian setting which I do think needs to be used more in fiction, and so gravitated towards it. The third reason is that it is told largely as an epistolary novel which is intriguing to me as there are many ways such a format can be played with.
As such I decided to dive right in.
Now let me tackle the first thing some of you may be thinking, yes this is a lesbian love story tied up in an epic fantasy. If you don't like any sort of romance in your novels then this isn't a work for you, but if you're intrigued by a decent romance novel tied up in a fantasy story I would encourage you to plunge ahead.
The novel is set in a fantasy land which is a combination of Medieval Japan, China, and Mongolia, but all rolled into one. As such the author does a wonderful job capturing the linguistic styles of the different peoples, which at times can be a detriment because many of the main characters have numerous names according to the culture they are spending time in. However, the author's ability to evoke all these different cultures and blend them so seamlessly is just fantastic. The action largely takes place in the Hokkaran Empire, and on the Qorin steppes. While other lands are mentioned, we see little of them and it seems they will be explored more in later books.
The Hokkaran and Qorin cultures (who have just fought a war against one another) are antagonistic, and so the story provides an unflinching depiction of racism and the tensions between the different peoples. The author it seems, is quite willing to deal with those real world issues and so seems quite willing to explore them, which I appreciate. She explores death, unrequited love, and romance with a truly admirable depth, which is a major strength to this novel.
Her fantastic elements are right at the forefront, demons sent by one of the deities "The Traitor" are crossing the Wall of Flowers and infecting the land causing blights, stillbirths, crop failures, and numerous terrible maladies. This all though, tends to shine through in the background more, as the story largely focuses on the exploits of the two main characters.
These are two characters are; Qorin warrior, Barsalayaa Shefali and Empress in waiting O-Shizuka. We follow their adventures from an early age, and we learn of their otherworldly powers, and their seemingly destined nature for their fates to be intertwined. However, the story is largely told from Shefali's perspective through her letters to Shizuka.
One thing that shines through in this perspective is the romance, and alas that romance seems to have poor Shefali falling over herself to please Shizuka, even from an early age. Shefali suffers numerous times to help Shizuka, and unfortunately Shizuka never seems to learn from her brash and boorish behavior in how it can hurt other people. While Shefali comes off as amiable if quiet, Shizuka comes across as manipulative, arrogant, brash, and obnoxious. Indeed she is almost the singular cause of all the misfortune that other characters suffer. That she never seems to learn from this is readily apparent, even into the end of the novel. She regularly abuses her power to bully others, and is (acknowledged by other characters) spoiled and willful.
Needless to say I did not like Shizuka very much, and could only somewhat sympathize with her. Even though she seems to have a semi-divine nature (and is aware of it, leading to her arrogance) she continues on a destructive path (for those around her) which leads to misfortune all around. My sincerest hope is that she grows as a person by the next book and is less abrasive or arrogant, which will show both character growth, and add some necessary depth to her upcoming character arc. It would also make the relationship between the two far more healthy.
There are supporting characters, whether it is the two girls mothers, a pair of equally powerful female warriors, Shizuka's father, or the adversarial Emperor Yoshitomo who fears Shizuka and seeks to chain her down and prevent her from usurping him. The two mothers, Shizuru who is married to Isitoro, brother of the Emperor, and Alshara who united the Qorin peoples and brought war and peace. Both are unique and intriguing individuals for their backstories, and their personalities. Shizuru, an unmitigated badass who slaughters demons and foes alike has a powerful influence on Shizuru, but even she cannot stop her daughters willfulness and arrogance. Alshara, who is by choice mute, works to keep the Qorin peoples alive after years of plague and war. Both women are interesting and unique, and represent fascinating looks at warrior women in male dominated societies.
Prince Isitori, the Poet Prince, is an inversion of the powerful male trope. Where most of the female characters in this novel are badass fighters, he hates war, and prefers art and poetry. He makes for a sensitive and understanding character in contrast to the more blunt and capricious women we see.
Unfortunately, most of the other men in the novel are either cruel, perverted, or ugly and incompetent, which sort of ruins the gender balance the novel had. There are some other sympathetic male characters, but they are few and far between, and even many of them manage to cause disasters which must be cleaned up by the women. The author did seem to go out of her way to make many of the male characters unlikable, which seemed heavy handed at points.
That doesn't detract from the story at all mind you. Most of the less appealing men have characterization that makes it clear why they are that way, and you can revile them simply for their actions and not feel bad about it. Making all the competent characters women isn't the worse thing an author can do, and you can appreciate the power that the women have because of it.
The plot is largely a telling of their adventures and their evolution from young girls, to their teen years where we then have a time skip of 8 years. This it seems will then tell the story of where Shefali has been and why she is writing the letter, and perhaps tell Shizuka's story in the interim. I can't say too much for fear of spoilers but I encourage you to read it.
Shizuka and Shefali's romance does clog up the meta plot a touch. There is also a very explicit scene, which some people may find uncomfortable, but it can be easily skipped. We see from the outset that the two are destined to be intertwined in some way, but there's a great deal of meta information about the world and setting which is only revealed much later on in the books. That leaves you groping around blindly for the world building in the first little while, but these are later filled in and you come to a gradual understanding of how the world works and what is going on.
This neatly avoids many lengthy infodumps or clunky "as you know" narrative pieces. The result is a building mystery and suspenseful telling, but it needed some clarity and context in cases. While I felt a bit more world building could have been pushed into the story at times, I found by the end of the novel I had a full idea of the world and the problems the characters needed to address. That said, it does feel lacking and I hope the next installment fixes that.
I personally like the East Asian setting, and its cultural blend, but evidently there have been many readers of East Asian origin who take issue with it. I won't pretend to understand all the nuances and complicated relationships/perceptions between the many cultures involved, but evidently some of the language used by the author is insensitive to some readers. This does not bother me in particular, but I would like to say that the "culture chop suey" the author used was, to me, unique and engaging. If it did not portray cultures as quite "real to life" or used alternate interpretations of those cultures for the plot, I am not bothered. I don't raise my own eyebrows when Western medieval cultures are changed to suit the needs of fiction (well most of it) so I see no valid reason to do so in accordance with others.
I believe that the novel deserves a fair shake as a piece by a new author, but there is indeed room for improvement. If you want a book with strong female characters in a neat Asian setting, pick it up. If however, the idea of a lesbian romance turns you off, well you won't like it. I liked it though, and encourage you to give it a try yourself.