Aliette de Bodard’s 2021 Fireheart Tiger is a standalone secondary-universe fantasy.
Princess Thanh was dispatched to Ephteria as a child; the least favourite child, she was the natural choice to send as hostage to the powerful faraway country. As a young woman she has returned to her homeland, Bình Hải. Her experiences changed her in ways that she is reluctant to reveal.
There was a fire. There are fires.
Objects tend to burst into flames when Thanh is around. It’s not something she does on purpose, if indeed she is causing the fires. Since she does not understand why or how this happens, it’s nothing she can do to stop it. She smothers the fires as soon as she notices them, all the while hoping that nobody ever connects the princess with a rash of small fires.
Ephteria is simultaneously Bình Hải’s greatest ally and its greatest threat. The assistance the imperial nation grants Bình Hải allows Bình Hải to resist the territorial ambitions of its immediate neighbours. The catch is that Ephteria has its own ambitions and they do not require proximity. Whether it’s special legal concessions for its misbehaving traders or other matters, Ephteria is always pushing for new accommodations.
When the latest embassy from Ephteria arrives, Thanh is tasked with dealing with the visitors. It’s a thankless job, since the results can only be displeasing. Ephteria is consistent that way. There is one compensation: the embassy includes the beguiling Eldris, Thanh’s ex-lover.
Eldris has her own agenda in addition to serving as an emissary. First of all, she’s determined to transition from ex- to current lover. She is also determined to return to her homeland with Thanh as her bride.
It’s a very intriguing proposal. Marriage to an aristocrat of the first water has clear benefits that may well outweigh the costs, both for Thanh and for her homeland. There’s just one hitch. There’s someone new in Thanh’s life. This presents Thanh with a problem: should she embrace her old flame and all the imperial baggage that comes with the relationship, or take a chance on the hot new thing?
I picked this in part because it has a pretty cover. Publishers who want me to review their book might want to take heed.
There are actually a lot of hitches. Even if Thanh didn’t have romantic options, there is the fact that she would be very much the junior partner if she married Eldris. She would be the exotic bride who no doubt could be set aside easily once Eldris got bored (assuming Thanh didn’t conveniently fall off a balcony into a pit filled with vipers). Additionally, dynastic union might be a convenient step towards Ephteria’s assimilation of Thanh’s much smaller homeland. Most of the benefits are short term and the risks are mostly long term. Still, one has to get through the short term to reach the long term.
(In Ephteria’s defense, the conduct of other nations in the region suggests they would treat Ephteria no better than Ephteria if they had the upper hand. It’s all power politics, if not naked, then definitely scantily clad.)
This seems to be aristocratic courtship drama week here at James Nicoll Reviews. Partly this is just a fluke; but there’s also the fact that books about the travails of the wealthy and high-born are common. It does not take too many draws to get a run of this sort. De Bodard is at least a more than commonly skilled writer and Thanh an engagingly powerless aristocrat.