How the Lady Warriors of The Tiger’s Daughter Slay Fantasy Tropes

In which I recreate my experience reading K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter the only way that seems appropriate: through letters. Some spoilers for the novel.

Shefali. O-Shizuka. We need to talk.

You’re out of control. You run through palace gardens fending off tigers, and camp out on the Silver Steppes grappling with demons around the fire. You’re so convinced that you’ve been touched by the gods because you’ve been able to escape tiger attacks without getting mauled, just some claws to the shoulder.

You dream of patrolling the land—Shefali picking off demons from afar with your bow, or, for the ones that get too close, O-Shizuka slashing them with the sword. The two of you will be beholden to none of the responsibilities of the throne nor of the tribe, free to do nothing but play warrior until you have racked up enough demon kills to actually assume the title.

It’s a lovely dream, but one of you has to grow out of it. You can’t both be warriors.

It’s just too redundant. It’s hard enough shoehorning one woman into a story; even if two can sneak in, they can’t inhabit the same role, because then what would be the point?

It’s the paramount playground rule: You can’t both be Princess Leia. One of you gets to be the Alderaanian princess, racing across the galaxy fighting the Empire, while the other has to hold down the Rebel base as Mon Mothma. Or, nowadays you can be the Jedi-in-training (Rey), Rebel spy (Jyn Erso), New Order stormtrooper (Captain Phasma), Resistance maintenance worker (Rose Tico)… But there are not two princesses. Not two Jedi. Not two spies. Not two lady stormtroopers. Not two maintenance workers. Also, you can’t share screentime for more than five minutes.

Don’t look at me like that! I didn’t make the rules.

What, like Sansa and Arya Stark were both going to choose the sword? One was clearly the lady, the other the warrior. Arya could no more adapt to wearing gowns and elaborate hairstyles than Sansa could stab people with Needle or snatch their faces. They know their place—more, they know their roles.

Puberty is where the issue becomes clear. Girls can run around slaying demons, but women must let themselves get slotted into roles that are complementary, or proportional, to one another. Not the same image layered one on top of the other, so that you can’t discern which one is which.

I took up the [insert weapon] and defended my [insert family/tribe/subjects] from [insert enemy].

Who wants to hear the same story twice?

Let’s be serious. One of you is going to put down your weapon and pick up something else: a fan, a calligraphy brush, I don’t know, a spoon? Or maybe you don’t need to hold anything. You can just sit there and work on the public face you’ll present to the rest of the world. Poets can write scrolls and scrolls about how pretty and/or forbidding you look.

Maybe that’s you, O-Shizuka. After all, you’re the niece of the Emperor and do have a lot of responsibilities demanding your time and attention, like practicing calligraphy and fending off suitors. That’s, like, your whole day right there!

But Shefali, you have just as much opportunity to follow Alshara’s footsteps as Kharsa. It’s not too late to learn your mother’s sign language, so that you can take the role of her interpreter and, in doing so, absorb all of her teachings for your eventual ascendance to ruling the Qorin people.

You’re both equally poised to take over a throne—or saddle—just waiting for you. One of you just has to choose.

No? Neither of you will budge?

Art by Jaime Jones

Look, there might have been a loophole if you two weren’t friends, or if you were pen pals who lived in very distant regions so that no one could confuse one warrior for another. If you didn’t insist on going everywhere together, reminding everyone that here are two warriors occupying the narrative space where just one is needed. A warrior and a farm girl she picked up on the way? Fine. A warrior and her royal friend? Awesome. But two warriors? How will they tell you apart?

The sword and the bow, you say. Sure, they’re different weapons. And, OK, they actually match your personalities and temperaments weirdly well—Shizuka, getting in people’s faces and wielding an inherited blade like the deadly status symbol it is; Shefali taking the time and effort to construct her bow, to create exactly the instrument that matched her needs, ever thoughtful, always slightly removed so that she could consider every step that leads up to letting that arrow fly. Shizuka’s sword representing its own bloody lineage, while Shefali’s bow is, like her tribe’s passage of power, self-made.

Speaking of bloodlines, where are your mothers? This is usually the point in the story where your moms shake some sense into you, remind you of fancy balls or marriage proposals or honor. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that you’re only friends because your mothers happened to be pregnant at the same time. It’s no more destiny than The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is.

Except that your mothers… instead of being yoga buddies… were also a demon-hunting duo.

O-Shizuru, the Emperor’s champion, his not-so-secret weapon, whose cocky grin was even more dangerous than her sword.

Burquila Alshara, the Kharsa, who slew her own brothers in order to take her rightful place in control, who amassed hundreds of allies without speaking a word, who blew a hole in the Wall of Stone with Dragon’s Fire.

Bonded by eight days of torture, bound by friendship for decades after.

But women don’t pass on warrior teachings to their daughters. Lady warriors are supposed to be singular—the first in a generation, or even a century, to be safe. Their identity hinges on existing in a vacuum—on being the one, plucky, tomboyish girl who decides to buck propriety and take on the mantle of a warrior right as people’s memories of the last long-dead lady knight were beginning to crumble into ash. You can’t have two generations of lady warriors in one story; one flesh-and-blood fighter must be balanced out by one distant legend.

If there have to be two lady warriors alive at the same time, then they can only meet up occasionally, mostly just for showdowns.

So, this whole thing with mothers living long enough to pass down actual training directly to their daughters just doesn’t track. That’s just a surplus of protectors of the realm. How are there even enough weapons for everyone?

O-Shizuka, I know you inherited your mother’s sword, but… Well, it just doesn’t work like that. Who do you think you are, Luke Skywalker picking up Anakin’s lightsaber? Aragorn, bequeathed the shards of his ancestor Elendil’s sword Narsil? You couldn’t have inherited your father’s calligraphy brush instead?

Oh. You inherited O-Shizuru’s sword because… because you had to kill her with it. To extinguish the demon that had taken over her body, her greatest nightmare.

I took up my mother’s sword and defended my beloved from the people who would destroy her.

And you, Shefali, you had to create a new bow after your old one was—and the demon—and your body—

I took up my bow and defended myself from ancient evils.

You know what? I’m not going to change your mind. Carry on.

Art by Jaime Jones

And thank you, for proving me wrong.

Don’t even get Natalie Zutter started on Shizuka and Shefali both being Chosen Ones. Which is to say, it’s so great. Talk fantasy tropes with her on Twitter!

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