TITLE: The Tiger's Daughter (Their Bright Ascendancy #1)
AUTHOR: K. Arsenault Rivera
GENRE: Fiction, Fantasy
PUBLISHED: October 3, 2017
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
The Tiger’s Daughter is set in a world with countries intended to stand in as fantasy equivalents for China, Japan, and Mongolia. At the start of the novel, Empress Yui, ruler of Hokkaro, receives a package from Barsalyya Shefali Alshar. Inside is a book, and as the Empress reads it a story unfolds about two girls whose destinies have been entwined from the moment of their births: two girls who will, in their own time, go on to do great and wondrous things.
One of the things that drew me to this novel is the choice of setting. When it was first announced last year I immediately penned the release date into my calendar because it is not often I read a fantasy novel with a clearly Asian setting. However, as I was reading this novel it was soon clear to me that the world in which this story is set is not quite as firm as I might like it to be - specifically, where it concerns anything to do with Hokkaro. On one hand, I was thinking it would be an equivalent to Imperial China but as I continued reading I began to see increasing overlaps with feudal Japan - overlaps that did not quite make sense, and kept pulling me out of my suspension of disbelief.
This is something of a problem, to say the least. Other reviewers have already addressed this issue, but for my part it is discomfiting to read two disparate (and they are quite disparate) cultures put together in ways that make it seem like the author assumes they are one and the same thing, and therefore their elements will fit in together quite comfortably. For example, the Hokkaran language appear to be drawn from Japanese: characters have names like “Yui”, “Shizuru”, and “Itsuki”, to name but a few. There is also a complicated system regarding honorifics:
… Your people have eight sets of honorifics, one for each god. Using the wrong one in the wrong context was as bad as spitting in the eye of a person’s mother right in front of them. To make matters worse, half of them sounded the same.
… “Sun” was the lowest form of the Grandmother’s honorific. Depending on the person speaking it, it might be affectionate. Most of the time, however, it indicated that the speaker thought themselves far above the subject.
The other ones I knew were “mor,” which was the highest for the Mother; “lor,” the second highest for the Sister and your father’s favorite; “tono,” used for the Emperor alone; and “shon.”
Shon was the Daughter’s highest. Who better to wear it than the girl born on the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year, at Last Bell?
There are also certain cultural elements that clearly code as Japanese - for example, a reference to naginatas:
“Either you learn the naginata or the sword,” he said. “You may choose only one.”
You did not have to think about it. “The sword,” you said. “It is about time Mother recognized my talent.”
There are also references to hara-kiri, though it is not called by that name:
A shamed noble wakes before First Bell. … He cloaks himself in white. He sits in an empty room. Before him: a blank sheet of paper, a brush, an inkblock, a bowl of water. Whatever he has done in his life, he must condense into three lines of poetry. …
After he leaves that room, he will commit public suicide.
Traditional Hokkaran suicides are too painful, even for someone like me. Kneeling before a crowd and disemboweling myself? No. I could not and would not. The first stroke alone wouldn’t be enough to kill me, and by then I’d… I’d change again.
These elements - but most especially the names - give the reader the impression that Hokkaro is meant to be a kind of fantasy Japan. And yet, these distinctly Japanese elements are juxtaposed against other elements that code as Chinese: some place-names, for example, as well as the way certain items of clothing and weaponry are described. There is also a reference to a Wall of Stone: clearly meant to reference the Great Wall.
But what really makes all these juxtapositions jarring is my understanding of real-world geography and history. If the Qorin are meant to equate to the Mongols (and almost all the elements line up almost one-is-to-one), then the Hokkarans should equate to the Chinese - which would make sense, as the Mongols did successfully invade China and hold it as their territory long enough to warrant their own official dynasty (the Yuan) in Chinese histories. But if the Qorin are the Mongols and the Hokkarans are the Chinese, why does Hokkaro have a culture that has a lot of very obviously Japanese elements? I know this is a fantasy novel, and therefore this is a made-up culture, but Chinese and Japanese cultural elements are disparate enough that they cannot straightforwardly be combined into one, unified whole.
The only possible reason for this, sadly, is that the author assumes that Chinese and Japanese culture are interchangeable, or at least, similar enough that the juxtapositions would nestle easily enough against each other without being too obvious. Unfortunately, this is not the case: Chinese culture is distinctly Chinese culture, and though the Japanese did import a lot of Chinese culture into their own over the duration of their history, they are still distinctly Japanese. This is also why some reviewers have raised an outcry over this novel, calling it out for cultural appropriation. For my part, I am rather certain that I do not have a right to throw my hat into the ring, as it were, as I am neither Chinese, nor Japanese, nor Mongolian. I do think, however, that people more qualified than I can and should discuss this issue, and that the author should pay attention.
Despite my not having any real right to comment on this argument, I still think the above issue presents problems for me as a reader - mostly because it does funny things to my mental spatial understanding of this world. Since much of Hokkaran culture codes as Japanese to me, while the geography definitely codes as Chinese, I keep on getting turned around geographically in my head as I read this novel, which does no wonders for my immersion into the novel itself. It’s like my real-world map constantly interferes with the novel’s fictional map because the cultures in the novel code far too closely to their real-world equivalents in ways that don’t quite make sense - at least where it concerns Hokkaro.
(I would like to note, by the way, that the novel does come with a map, and in that map Qorin territory lies to the east, while Hokkaran territory lies to the west against the sea - which only makes my mental geography even screwier as I have to constantly remind myself that travel from this novel’s fictional-China to its fictional-Mongolia goes from west to east, and not the other way around as it does in the real world. And there is no sign of Japan, since there are no islands that might correspond to it, which once again does a funny number to my geographical understanding of this world. My brain keeps on insisting that an ocean needs to be crossed before getting to Mongolia, but in the world of the novel, of course, that ocean does not exist, because Japan has been somehow integrated into China and they are now one and the same.)
What I find even more troubling is that there are novels that play with similar settings, but do so in ways that interfere far less with my sense of immersion. For example, Ken Liu’s extraordinary Dandelion Dynasty series is set in a world that draws heavy inspiration from a variety of East Asian sources: specifically, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin, which are classical Chinese novels. There is also Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy, which is inspired by the history of the Mongolian Khanates. However, unlike this novel, the world-building of Liu and Bear’s novels is such that though the bones are recognisably East Asian (among others, in the case of Liu’s series), they are still very much their own worlds. The references are visible to anyone who can see them or cares to look for them, but they are not so obvious that they interfere with my sense of immersion.
Where does that leave this novel? It would depend on the reader’s tolerances, I suppose. There are reviews out there that focus specifically on this particular issue, and such reviews come from people far more qualified than I. For my part, I have already mentioned that I do not think I have any real right to argue this issue from the cultural appropriation standpoint a lot of other reviewers have taken up. All I can speak to is how the world-building, as it stands, is confusing and does not create a good sense of immersion for the reader - especially when compared to other novels that play with a similar East Asian setting.
Apart from the above issue, however, the novel is actually quite lovely to read. I understand that some readers have issues with the way the story is structured: supposedly told via one long letter, but in fact structured more like a diary, with occasional flashbacks to the present day. Since this is not the kind of plot structure most readers expect when they pick up a fantasy novel, it is possible that more than a few of them will just give up on the novel before they get very deep into it.
Readers who do not give up, however, will be rewarded with the tale of Shefali and Shizuka: two girls from extremely different backgrounds, who are convinced they are the only ones who stand between their peoples and a dangerous evil. But before they can get down to the business of their destinies, they both have some growing up to do - which is where another hurdle comes up: some of the characters are just not all that likeable.
Elsewhere, I have mentioned that I am the kind of reader who has enough sense to know the difference between a good person and a good character; I am entirely aware that a character need not be the former in order to be the latter. Indeed, I appreciate it greatly when I cannot decide whether I like or hate a character, because those two extremes are easy stances to take, whereas the middle ground is somewhat more nuanced, more complex. As someone who appreciates complex characters, especially complex female characters, I welcome any ambiguity of feeling when it comes to liking or disliking a particular character.
I am also aware, however, that not all readers are like me, and that many conflate the notions of a good character with a good person. Therefore, those readers may take a set against Shizuka, who comes off as remarkably spoiled and headstrong to the point of obstinacy. I agree with this, as there were many times while reading this novel that I had to sigh and (mentally) mutter the word “Hubris!” in a despairing tone, but despite all of that, I still like Shizuka. A part of this may have to do with the narrator since I find Shefali extremely likable (both as a character and as a person), and she does tend to present Shizuka in very glowing terms. Keen readers, however, will likely see through Shefali’s rose-tinted glasses and see Shizuka for what she really is - which is, really, not a very good person at all.
Despite knowing this, I still like Shizuka. As I have said, I know how to draw a line between a good character and a good person, and I think Shizuka is a good character precisely because she is not a good person - at least, not at first. It takes time for her to change and to grow into a better person, but she does become one. The full impact of that change is not immediately apparent, as it takes much reading between Shefali’s lines to see it, but it is there. It just takes some finding - and some patience to actually see it happen.
As for Shefali herself, I do not think it will take much effort on the reader’s part to like her. She is self-effacing and awkward in certain situations but is also entirely aware of what she is good at and where she is most comfortable. She aspires to be worthy of those around her: of her mother, her clan, but most especially of Shizuka. This is something to be admired, and I think a lot of readers will like this about her as well. I also think that her treatment of Shizuka, despite the other girl’s flaws, is quite charming as well: after all, many other people would have given up on Shizuka as a lost cause (as a lot of readers likely will), but Shefali sees far more to Shizuka than a lot of her people give her credit for - and that, really, is where this love story really begins.
After all, if this story is really anything, it is a love story: two girls with great destinies ahead of them, but still, at the end of the day, just human, and so very much in love with one another. While the fact that this is about two women in love is a good thing, what with LGBTQIA love stories - more so specifically lesbian love stories - being a little thin on the ground, I enjoy the fact that this is also a love story well-told. No amount of representation will save a love story if it is told badly, after all, and I am enormously happy that this story is, indeed, a well-told love story, with an ending well-deserved.
Overall, The Tiger’s Daughter is a solid read, albeit with a few pitfalls. First: the world-building may put off some readers, either because they find it insulting or because they find it confusing. Second: the structure of the narrative may not be appealing to some readers because it is not what they expect from a fantasy novel. Third: the characterisation of certain characters, but most likely Shizuka, may be a turn-off for the other readers who are not put off by the first two issues. Readers who are able to look past those three things, however, will find a story featuring interesting characters and best of all a love story with the capacity to touch the reader in a way only the best love stories can manage.