As the jaws of a colonizing power tighten around the throat of her homeland Bình Hải, Thanh must navigate the course of her nation’s future, and her own. She’s in a challenging position—the quiet, contemplative youngest child of the empress, not as much overt use to her family or Bình Hải as her powerful sisters. Her mother had sent her to the Ephterian court when she was a child. Thanh had been a guest, and her mother had expected her to return with insights into Ephteria’s customs and intentions, in order to prove herself worthy and protect Bình Hải from their encroaching claim.
But the only real connection Thanh forged during her years in Ephteria is one she cannot confess to her mother. Two years since her return, and she’s still haunted by the ghost of Princess Eldris’ touch. Something stranger, too, remains of her time in the capital Yosolis—the little fires Thanh seems to carry with her. In a deadly, mysterious calamity, the palace burned one night. Thanh made it out alive, no thanks to Eldris, only the company of an enigmatic serving girl at her side. Now it’s as if she can’t escape that night. The fires are small enough still to go unnoticed, burning only pinches of tea leaves, or the hairs of calligraphy brushes, but Thanh can’t control the flames, and she doesn’t know how long she can keep them secret.
Eldris appears with a Ephterian delegation, and the impending threat of colonization encroaches. Thanh’s mother knows that Ephteria isn’t here for diplomacy, that they must negotiate to strengthen Bình Hải, not bow to Ephterian demands. Yet Thanh can’t forget what Eldris was to her—especially when Eldris makes it clear her feelings remain. As the heat rises on all fronts, a surprising potential ally emerges, and Thanh must determine where to place her trust for the sake of Bình Hải, and her own heart.
Aliette de Bodard’s Fireheart Tiger is a high-stakes, tautly plotted political fantasy adventure tangled in a twisty, passionate sapphic love triangle. de Bodard is a master of the novella, satisfyingly crafting lush worldbuilding and complex character dynamics within the short form. The fantasy landscape drawn from pre-colonial Vietnam simmers with tensions of imperialism and colonialism, on the brink of boiling over in both personal and political scope.
I don’t want to give a lot away, as much of the impact of this novel comes from unfurling the mysteries within the hearts of the characters. I will share that Thanh finds herself forced to challenge her own understanding of her world and its magic, while simultaneously navigating a vicious betrayal where she leasts expects it. de Bodard expertly draws parallels between the eerie, paternalistic fealty demanded by a colonizer and a specific shape an abusive relationship can take. Fireheart Tiger highlights the toxic promise of a savior, the illusion of safety closing in like a cage.
In the midst of this conflict, de Bodard explores what it is to fall into a romance while working oneself out of trauma. How might Thanh move through good love, when all she’s known has been unhealthy, when she was raised to see her worth as a bargaining chip? That desire: to feel worthy, to be wanted, can corrode judgment. It also challenges Thanh’s notions of monstrosity. This is one of my favorite fantasy tropes, especially within a love triangle: what does it really mean to be a monster? Caught between snow and fire, the iron grip of a known frost or the phoenix-like possibility of blazing hope, what does it mean, to burn? In a world with a colonizing power, there is a clearly drawn answer, but can Thanh trust herself to know the difference?
Fireheart Tiger is a lush, sharp, and evocative novella. It’s a quick read that brims with aching beauty, intricate emotion, and surprising twists of magic. De Bodard foregrounds complex women and their conflicting desires, and delves into the intimate consequences of encroaching imperialism. It’s also a work about memory: how it can be preserved in unexpected places, how it might betray us, how it can burn. I’m grateful for such a clever, thought-provoking work from this perspective, that explicitly challenges empire and centers a messy tangle of powerful sapphics, especially without homophobia governing their dynamics.
At its heart, this is about reclamation. Sent away from her homeland by her own mother, groomed by a gilded threat, Thanh is finally coming to understand she must take control of her own path, and her story sings with much-needed hope. Even when vicious darkness closes in, there’s a light to be found, perhaps where you thought there was only ash. It’s okay to know you deserve better than you’ve been given. It’s okay to want a life, and a love, you can trust. Neither a weakened nation nor a broken heart can be healed in a day, but both can be rebuilt.
Fire can be a beginning.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.