Book Review by Natalie: The Tiger’s Daughter, by K. Arsenault Rivera

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The Tiger’s Daughter, by K. Arsenault Rivera
Series: Their Bright Ascendancy, #1
Publisher: Tor
Release Date: October 3, 2017

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

summary

Even gods can be slain

The Hokkaran empire has conquered every land within their bold reach—but failed to notice a lurking darkness festering within the people. Now, their border walls begin to crumble, and villages fall to demons swarming out of the forests.

Away on the silver steppes, the remaining tribes of nomadic Qorin retreat and protect their own, having bartered a treaty with the empire, exchanging inheritance through the dynasties. It is up to two young warriors, raised together across borders since their prophesied birth, to save the world from the encroaching demons.

This is the story of an infamous Qorin warrior, Barsalayaa Shefali, a spoiled divine warrior empress, O Shizuka, and a power that can reach through time and space to save a land from a truly insidious evil.

A crack in the wall heralds the end…two goddesses arm themselves…K Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter is an adventure for the ages.

tropes-tags

F/F Pairing
Lesbian Character
Person of Color
Romance
Epic Fantasy
Magic
Epistolary

I struggled a lot with a rating for this one. This book almost works, but it was impossible for me to walk away without feeling like I’d just read a 500 page prequel. The Tiger’s Daughter is a frame story, so the story starts with Shizuka in the present day, but the real story is told through the letter she receives from her childhood friend and eventual lover, Shefali. There are small interludes with present-day Shizuka’s reactions to the letter, but this is primarily a second-person narrative where Shefali addresses Shizuka. We realize pretty quickly that Shefali and Shizuka have been separated from each other, and Shizuka is in emotionally dire straits, so the immediate questions are: why? What happened?

However, instead of starting the letter from when Shefali and Shizuka separate from each other, Shefali decides to start the letter…with their very first meeting as children and then describe their lives and relationship chronologically, while offering absolutely no insight into what she is currently doing.

Okay. Great. So Shefali is going to explain her perspective on their relationship as it unfolded, right? That could be interesting. Except, in practice, it doesn’t feel like we get Shefali’s perspective so much as descriptions of events that she participated in.  Shizuka’s present-day point of view is also massively underutilized, since the story could have set up some really emotionally wrenching contrasts between Shefali’s letter and Shizuka’s reactions/memories/own perspective on events as Shizuka reads it. But this doesn’t happen: the chapters are far too long, and Shizuka’s very brief interludes do not carry as much weight as they should.

It’s not until we get to the 2/3rds mark that we finally get information from Shefali’s point of view that would be new and deeply important to Shizuka, so it’s really not until the book is almost over that the letter actually makes any kind of real world sense. By the time we find out how and why they are separated, I didn’t care as much as I should have.

So the basic story-telling doesn’t make sense in the way that it is used here, and to be honest, the story would have been more effective if it had been told in real-time, rather than giving us the perpetual sense that we are trying to catch up to the start of the actual story. If the letter had been told non-chronologically, or we had gotten more time with Shizuka in the present, this probably would have made the story feel less like it was waiting to start. It also doesn’t help that Shefali is constantly referencing the (way more interesting) story of her and Shefali’s parents. Their mothers had some wild times together, and every casual mention of their past adventures made me desperate to get that story instead.

Because the story is being told through a letter to someone who already knows the world, worldbuilding is a different challenge and one that, I would say, Rivera only partially succeeds at. The cultures in this world are barely-concealed analogues for Japan, Mongolia, and China, and aspects of those cultures feel haphazardly taken and used, with little sensitivity to the larger real-world context in which they currently exist. On the other hand, the original parts of this world are almost entirely unexplained. A particularly frustrating example is the use of honorifics in the book’s pseudo-Japanese culture: Rivera creates a whole new honorific system, but she never explains what any of the honorifics mean! The honorifics are somehow based on the eight gods of this world, but it is never explained to us which set of honorifics belongs to which god, and why or how that set is applied to a person, or even which honorific in the set should be used and why. Because of this, the honorifics are laughably arbitrary at best.

Other original parts of the world are the gods, which means they should be better explained than they are. But the eight gods are only barely described and rarely used in context throughout the book, so it’s difficult to infer what they actually do as gods. So, by the end of five hundred pages, all I know is that the Daughter is probably the goddess of fertility or flowers (and Shizuka is probably her avatar or reincarnation), and that the Brother is probably the Traitor that everyone is always talking about. So what is the importance of the Mother, Father, Grandmother, Grandfather, Sister, and Son? After 500 pages of seeing this world and interacting with it through Shefali, I feel like the worldbuilding is ultimately paper-thin in the parts that really matter. I had no sense of the world’s geography and political boundaries, so for once in my life, I actually wished for a fantasy-world map.

So. I’ve written a lot before I even get to the most important part of the book: Shefali and Shizuka’s relationship. The Tiger’s Daughter is 100% adamantly a love story between Shefali and Shizuka. To have an epic fantasy novel like this published with such a strong and prominent lesbian relationship in it is fantastic and amazing, which made it aggravating to see how spoiled Shizuka is. Shizuka’s brand of arrogance and entitlement got really hard to handle at times. And, curiously, despite the fact that the whole book is written from Shefali’s point of view, the singular focus on “you”(Shizuka), meant that Shefali sometimes felt invisible to me as a character, while Shizuka is (unhealthily) put on a pedestal by Shefali. A six year separation was probably one of the best things that could have happened to Shefali, to be honest. And, even more frustrating, despite the fact that the entire book is Shefali explaining their relationship to Shizuka (and consequently to us), it never felt to me as if we see any real, meaningful interaction between the two of them as they are growing up that convince me of their enduring bond.

As I said at the start, I struggled with rating this one. From the content of my review, it might sound like this should be more of a two-star rating. Yet I engaged with this book on a level I don’t often do anymore, and I’m still thinking about it, even days later. Something in this book worked, and I feel like it wouldn’t be fair not to acknowledge that. And this is the first of a trilogy. There are enough threads left over at the end that I can see where future installments might go, and I would be interested in reading further. Even with my disappointment in aspects of this book, I’m curious enough to see whether my suspicions about one of the characters pans out, but given the narrative choices in this beginning, I’m cautious about how the next one will continue. Will it gloss over the six years of separation and the adventures that happened in that time period? Will we again have to go back in time to fill in narrative gaps before returning to the present? I guess we’ll see.

more-from-author

Puerto Rico born and New York raised, K is a lifelong fan of all things nerdy. She drew on her love of tabletop gaming for her debut novel, THE TIGER’S DAUGHTER. An out and proud lesbian, she lives in Brooklyn with her partner and roommate.

Website | Twitter

You can purchase The Tiger’s Daughter from:

Publisher | Amazon | iTunes | Google Play | Barnes & Noble

Or add it to Goodreads

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I received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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