Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Tiger's Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

The Tiger's Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera is the first in a new and debut secondary World Series. It's set in a mostly historical Japanese- and Mongolian-inspired secondary world with magic and supernatural beings.

The Hokkaran empire has conquered every land within their bold reach―but failed to notice a lurking darkness festering within the people. Now, their border walls begin to crumble, and villages fall to demons swarming out of the forests.

Away on the silver steppes, the remaining tribes of nomadic Qorin retreat and protect their own, having bartered a treaty with the empire, exchanging inheritance through the dynasties. It is up to two young warriors, raised together across borders since their prophesied birth, to save the world from the encroaching demons.

This is the story of an infamous Qorin warrior, Barsalayaa Shefali, a spoiled divine warrior empress, O-Shizuka, and a power that can reach through time and space to save a land from a truly insidious evil.

The Tiger's Daughter is told through a very long letter from one main character, Shefali, to the other, Shizuka, with the framing narrative occasionally showing us what Shizuka is doing while reading the book-length letter over a few days. Shefali is, to over-summarise, the daughter of the leader of the nomadic Qorin and intended to eventually take her mother's place as ruler (spoilery events notwithstanding). Shizuka is the niece of the Hokkaran Emperor and by the time of the framing narrative has already become Empress. The main story (of the letter) follows a large chunk of their childhood, from Shefali's point of view, and culminates in some significant events in their late teens. The conclusion sets up what I assume will be the second book so well I am kind of annoyed at how much I want to read it (and how long I'll have to wait).

This book was a good read overall but I had a few minor(ish) issues with it. The first was that my copy — a very early ARC, so this might not be the case in the final version — did not come with a map. I wouldn't usually think of this as a problem, but since the fantasy realms were very clearly based on the Japanese Empire and the inhabitants of the Mongolian steppes, my mind naturally jumped to something approximating the real-world geography of historical Asia. About halfway through the book someone mentioned that the Hokkaran empire lay to the west, and the steppes to the east and I realised the geography wasn't at all how I'd assumed, distinctly marking it as a secondary world rather than an alternate reality. I had some hints of this from the inferred relationship between the Hokkaran empire and the conquered Xianese based on the etymology of people and place names, but that aspect also wasn't made entirely clear until near the end of the book (and isn't really relevant to the story, for all that I was curious). Having the pseudo-Japanese empire be dominant in pseudo-Asia, including ruling over the pseudo-Chinese, is a potentially interesting choice, but not one which is explored in very much detail.

On the topic of the different races and so forth in the book, I should mention that there is a lot of casual racism on the part of the characters, particularly in terms of slurs thrown at other races. The main characters aren't racist, but they do encounter it often. Especially Shefali since she looks different to the dominant/ruling Hokkarans and also is mixed race. Although the various slurs are likely to upset some readers, I thought it was clear that it was various peripheral characters being racist, not the protagonists or the narrative itself.

There is also a bit of interesting discussion of language, which was examined a little. Shefali speaks Hokkaran as well as Qorin, but she cannot read Hokkaran script, only Qorin letters. The weird thing there was the way Shefali's failure to learn Hokkaran writing sounded a lot like dyslexia — with the characters moving around in her eyes — but then she had no issue with Qorin script. Shizuka, on the other hand, doesn't speak Qorin and, while she does learn the Qorin letters to better communicate with Shefali, she's never criticised for not bothering to learn the language despite how much time she spends among the Qorin. It was clear that a general Hokkaran haughtiness towards lesser peoples was why most Hokkarans didn't bother learning Qorin, but that doesn't at all explain why Shizuka never learnt. Something I would have expected Shefali to be at least a little bit critical of.

Another thing that bothered me was some of the descriptions of lesbian sex. There were altogether too many long nails, some mentioned during the sex scene, which made me cringe. There was also an issue with <spoiler redacted> which must have made it even harder/slasherier to have sex, and yet? *sigh* I spent a lot of time wondering whether <spoiler redacted> was a "not all the time" thing, and from unrelated scenes I don't think so but I couldn't be sure. I also don't think this is a letter I should've been forced to wonder about. So if you're only interested in good lesbian sex scenes, this is not the book for you (also, there was only one particularly explicit scene, FYI).

Back to the main aspects of the narrative. This is not a short book and it is a little on the slow side. I was never bored while reading, but there were only a few sections that made me want to keep reading instead of sleeping. Because the story spans such a long space of time, I was often not really sure where it was going to go next. Having gotten to the end, I think I know what the next book will be about — and I will be disappointed if I'm wrong — but I can't be sure.

For all that my review contains several criticism, I did ultimately enjoy The Tiger's Daughter and after the ending I definitely want to read the sequel. I recommend it to fans of BFF (big fat fantasy), especially people looking for non-European fantasy worlds. It's nice to have so many prominent and empowered female characters with a lot of agency, and while the story isn't cheerful by a long shot, it isn't tragic in the fridged lesbian sense either. (I don't want to spoil the end, but I feel that's important. There's also the part where you know both characters have to live long enough to a) write the book and b) be reading it.) As I said, I intend to read the sequel, whenever it comes out.

4 / 5 stars

First published: October 2017, Tor Books
Series: Yes, book 1 of 3 in the series: Their Bright Ascendency
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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