Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: The Steppes, The Steppes Are Calling

There are some compensations for this year’s relentless grind of political and disaster news. Not many, mind you—but for me, this has been a banner year of books with which I can fall in love. One of the latest examples is K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter, an epic (in more than one sense) debut novel that situates its action in a fantasy landscape deeply influenced by the Mongolian steppe, China, and the interaction between the two.

An epic debut, an epic fantasy, and an epic romance. That’s the short way to describe The Tiger’s Daughter. The long way involves me raving a lot more about its women.

Because this is a novel about women and their relationships. Not just the most obvious relationship, the from-childhood and seemingly-fated connection between the Hokkaran princess O-Shizuka and Shefali, daughter of the uncrowned Kharsa of the Qorin steppe nomads, a connection that blooms into an epic romance, complete with some terrible life choices made in the arrogance of youth (and imperial arrogance) that result in suffering (note: no gays are buried in this novel). But the connection between their mothers, too.

Hidden in the backstory to The Tiger’s Daughter is a tale that would make an epic fantasy all on its own. For O-Shizuka’s mother, the daughter of a tradesman who married the emperor’s poet-brother, is the most skilled swordsperson in the empire. And Shefali’s mother is the uncrowned Kharsa, a women who killed her own brothers to stop them warring amongst each other, swore a vow of silence, rose to lead the Qorin to war against Hokkara, and made peace with that empire with a treaty marriage and an agreement never to officially accept the title of Kharsa to which she was entitled. These two women form a bond that transcends the history of animosity between the Hokkarans and the Qorin in the course of a quest in the demon-infested north, of which, out of a sizeable party, they were the only two to survive and to triumph by killing one of the leaders of their enemies.

This is an epic friendship that we only see sidelong and in fragments, from Shefali’s point of view. Because by the time The Tiger’s Daughter opens, this is history. The present is Shefali and O-Shizuka, O-Shizuka’s conviction that they were born to be gods and to cast down the demonic enemy in the north, and their growing discovery of each other—their growing into being in love with each other.

And getting into trouble.

An epic fantasy romance between god-like heroes (who are also really human in their overestimation of their own adolescent abilities), and both of them are women. And they’re both the daughters of heroic, immensely competent women. And their world is populated with many other competent women. This? This is a delight to me.

The Tiger’s Daughter uses a retrospective, epistolary voice. It reaches for a mythic register, and for the most part successfully achieves it. While it takes place on an epic canvas—and while there’s the shape of an epic conflict in the background—The Tiger’s Daughter‘s intensely personal focus on the relationship between Shefali and O-Shizuka makes this a deeply intimate story, as much character exploration as adventure. It works. It works really well.

I’m looking forward to reading a lot more of Rivera’s work.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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