Title: The Tiger’s Daughter
Author: K. Arsenault Rivera
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from Tor and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
The Tiger’s Daughter captured my imagination the moment I heard about it. The summary suggested a sprawling tale of love and lost, where star-crossed lovers are caught in a predestined battle with ancient demons. Shizuka and Shefali’s relationship encompasses everything I seek in a romance – filled with tragedy and promise, poetry and passion, and a sense of longing that left my heart aching.
I was immediately drawn in by the book’s silky and evocative writing. Structurally, the novel alternated between present day, where we follow Shizuka through third person perspective; and second person perspective chronicling the past – conveyed by a series of letters written by Shefali. I found Shefali’s writing especially moving and immersive, with each sentence imbued with love and the weight of history between the two characters. The rotation between the two narratives gave the book a sense of mystery, and the moment when past and present collided was one of the most memorable scene in the novel.
The relationship between Shizuka and Shefali was beautifully written. It felt inevitable the moment we hear about their births, where a couple of pine needles foretold of their shared destiny. At the same time, the differences between the two women felt insurmountable at times, given the various customs and traditions of their respective family. Yet, theirs was a love that never faltered, with each knowing that the other shared their soul – their mutual trust was as intrinsic as breathing. It’s a rare and gorgeous representation of F/F romance in mainstream fantasy, and the fact it was written by a lesbian author makes it all the more special.
In terms of characterisation, I have to admit that there was an imbalance in terms of character development. Shefali narrated the bulk of the novel through her deeply personal letters, so as readers we got to know her intimately – from the way she views the silver steppes to how deeply she loves Shizuka. On the other hand, Shizuka remains an elusive character, hard to pin down because of the infrequency of her point of view – and because Shefali’s chapters are determined to view her through rose-tinted lenses of a smitten lover. I found Shizuka interesting due to her boldness, she has an innate sense of entitlement that bordered onto arrogance – something even Shefali’s generous point of view could not hide. Despite the lack of development for Shizuka’s character, I felt the women were excellent foils to one another – and watching them interact was always a joy.
The side characters within the novel were a mixed bag. I found Shizuru and Alshara, our protagonists’s mothers, especially interesting, and I would love to see more snippets from their past. The female characters in this book were for the most part very memorable, with each having a well-developed history and distinct characterisation, independent from the main plot. However, I found the antagonists of the book to be very flat characters. Yoshimoto is never more than a tyrannical Emperor, constantly envious of Shizuka and her natural aptitude for ruling. The demons within the novel are even more unknowable, for a book that seemed to promise a lot of action – we never truly get to explore the creatures our protagonists are fighting against.
Where the book left me wanting most was its world-building, which took aspects from numerous East Asian countries without putting it into context. Hokkaro is primarily an analogue of Japan, while the Quorin people are inspired by Mongolian culture. In this world, Hokkaro is the primary empire, absorbing Xian – the world’s equivalent of China – as one of its many states. Although Hokkaro primarily uses Japan as its building block, there are elements of Chinese culture thrown into the mix, for example: its calendar system, or the Wall of Stone that divided the empire and the Quorin steppes. Given the complicated history between Japan and China, and the animosity that still stirs between the two nations – I felt the portrayal of Hokkaro lacked sensitivity and nuance. A fantasy world where the Hokkaro empire reigns undisputed supreme over Xian (and most of this world’s equivalent for Asia), in contrast to the very real war crimes inflicted by the Japan Imperial Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War, makes for an especially uncomfortable backdrop for this story.
I also want to add a warning for readers in regards to how a couple of East Asian characters are described within this book. There is an invented slur which calls East Asian people ‘rice-tongue’ or ‘rice-eaters’. There is also an instance where Shefali describes herself as ‘flat-faced’. While these particular scenes did not offend me personally as a Vietnamese woman, I acknowledge that these terms can be hurtful to other readers.
The Tiger’s Daughter excelled in terms of delivering an epic and exquisite love story, with Shizuka and Shefali’s relationship being the most remarkable romance I’ve read in 2017. While there are some issues with certain cultural depictions within the text, it did not detract from my personal enjoyment of the novel.