Nghi Vo’s 2020 When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is a secondary universe fantasy. It is the second volume in her Singing Hills Cycle.
Cleric Chih and their guide Si-yu ride on mammoth-back to an isolated way station. They hope to find a place to rest for the night. Instead, they find an unconscious man and three tigers. Tigers are generally bad news for travellers. These particular tigers are of the shape-shifting, talking variety, they are also very hungry tigers.
The tiger Ho Sinh Loan, who claims to be queen of a vast region whose human inhabitants might be astounded to learn of her existence, is accompanied by her sisters Sinh Hoa and Sinh Cam. They had intended a quick meal, but since the humans are guarded by a mammoth, and since the humans addressed the tigers in speech, her majesty decides to treat the humans as though they were people (of a sort). For the moment.
Cleric Chih belongs to a story-collecting order of monastics; Chih distracts the tigers by recounting the legendary romance between the tiger Ho Thi Thao and the scholar Dieu. As long as the tiger is beguiled by the story, the cleric will not be eaten. A very Scheherazade gambit.
The tale is well known amongst tigers, but not in the version Chih has learned. It has a human spin. The tigers object to this turn on the old tale and frequently interject to correct foolish human misinterpretations. The dialog fills the time nicely, but there’s a catch: the tigers may tire of correcting Chih and simply eat the cleric and the other humans.
In a sideways way, this seems a distant cousin of William Sander’s “The Undiscovered.” Both stories ponder the difficulty of telling stories across cultural divides. They differ in that Sander’s hapless playwright doesn’t have to worry about his hosts eating him; Chih is less fortunate.
From a reader’s perspective, this is an intriguing fantasy setting filled with enchanted creatures; from the characters’ perspective this is a hellscape populated by ravenous monsters. Well, from the human characters’ perspective, at any rate. From the tigers’ point of view, this world is a delightful smorgasbord, some of which is surprisingly chatty. Dinner and entertainment, what could be better?
As one would expect from the previous installment in the series, this is a charming tale that features Chih unraveling the secrets of past. Happily for the Cleric, poorly documented history being something the region has in abundance. The only minor flaw is the work’s brevity and the fact that the next installment is some distance off in the future. Now that I’ve finished this, what am I to read?