Tashi is only sixteen, but they’ve spent most of their young life training as an inhabitor, a spy with the magical ability to jump into the mind of an animal to whom they’re bonded. When their homeland of Thim is invaded by the warmongering Myeik, the inhabitors are scattered from their temple. Tashi and their best friend Pharo barely escape with their lives, but the when the monastery they seek refuge in is conquered by the enemy, they’re stuck in the heart of danger.
Leading the invading army is Xian, a boy not much older than Tashi but with more blood on his hands than anyone his age should ever have. Xian takes Tashi as his unwilling servant, the perfect position for some subterfuge and espionage. The more Tashi gets to know Xian, the less evil he seems. And the longer Tashi stays in the monastery, the more secrets and lies they uncover about who the inhabitors really are and what they’re capable of. The world is falling apart and Tashi has to choose: love or loyalty.
Julia Ember’s The Tiger’s Watch is the first novella in the Ashes of Gold series. With a start like this I can’t wait to see where the rest of the series will go. The story itself is intriguing and exciting, all high fantasy and queer YA in a non-Western setting. It takes a while for the story to get going, but once it does it never lets up. The world Ember has created is interestingly complex (maybe a little too complex for 150 pages) and there’s easily enough to fill a dozen sequels. Her fantasyland is lush fascinating, and if the ending of The Tiger’s Watch is any indication, Tashi’s about to see a whole lot more of it.
The only thing that rubbed me the wrong way was Tashi’s relationship with Xian. When you have one character (Tashi) who is in all practicality a slave to another (Xian) and then have them fall in love with each other, no amount of consent can make that not comfortable for me. Ember tries to add consent to the mix—Xian treats Tashi as an equal (but only when they’re alone) and repeatedly tells them they are free to leave (but not until Thim is fully conquered). But that’s a personal squick and obviously not everyone will feel the same way.
The two men in Tashi’s life, Xian and Pharo, make for interesting contrasts. It’s easy to see why Tashi would be pulled toward elements from both men. Frankly, I would’ve preferred no romance at all—with a story this short, adding in a love triangle takes some much needed time away from the vastly more interesting invasion and subterfuge plots.
Speaking of Tashi, they are such a compelling character. Tashi is an unexpected hero, the kind of person who isn’t used to being the star or taking charge. They are brave even when they’re weak and frightened. It’s no coincidence that the animal they are magically bonded to is a tiger (a rare golden one, at that). Tashi and their tiger Katala share similar personalities and goals. In a way, Katala is an older, more mature version of Tashi. Tashi’s genderfluidity is generally treated with respect, and when misgendering occurs it’s quickly corrected by the offending character. However, I’d love to hear what some gender nonconforming readers have to say.
Let me tell you a quick story. I’ve always had a thing for science fiction and fantasy. I was raised not on Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty but Anansi tales and medieval European folklore, the kind of stories where animals kill and people die and bad things happen to good people and magic permeates everything. When I got older I dabbled in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Wars and superhero cartoons, but my SFF consumption plummeted. Some of it was shifting tastes, but mostly it was the slow and subconscious realization that SFF wasn’t for me. I grew up the lone weird Black girl in an isolated, creatively stifling, and predominately white environment, so authors like Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany weren’t on my radar. This meant I was left with science fiction and fantasy written by cishet white people, starring cishet white people, and about the cishet white experience. Sure, I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it wasn’t mine, you know? These were stories I could watch or read, but never be a part of.
Eventually I dropped SFF altogether. Every time I tried to return, the lack of diversity—and, increasingly, the anti-PC culture dudebros colonizing spec-fic—drove me right back out again. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I finally, unexpectedly found my way home. A friend sent me a YouTube link to a scene where, as she described it, Spike made out with a gay space captain. Torchwood had me hooked, and from there Doctor Who was an easy leap. And down the rabbit hole I went. Suddenly I had science fiction with queer people in it! Written and created by and starring queer people! It wasn’t perfect, but as a woman still untangling her own queer experiences, it was like a revelation. Even though those shows didn’t specifically represent my exact experiences, they certainly weren’t the same old stories I ditched years before.
Since that fateful day in 2008, I’ve watched in utter delight as SFF has diversified out. There’s a helluva lot more work to do, but it’s astounding how far we’ve come in such a short amount of time. Novellas like Tiger’s Watch likely would never have been published a decade ago, much less get reviewed on a major website. But here it is and here we are and I couldn’t be happier. I hope Ember’s story reaches some gender nonconforming kid out there desperate for their own fantasy stories. I hope that kid sees that genre fic is just as much for them as the rest of us. I want that kid to be inspired to create their own diverse stories and to keep evolving the medium beyond the stale traditions. The Tiger’s Watch isn’t the first YA fantasy to star a genderfluid character, nor is it a perfect novella, but I’m still thrilled it exists. If this is part of an upward trend of more gender nonconforming stories in YA SFF, we’re off to a fine start.
The Tiger’s Watch is available from Dreamspinner Press.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.