Book Review: The Tiger's Daughter
I saw a lot of buzz for this one, especially as it centered on a f/f relationship set in an Asian-inspired setting. Such things are rare in fantasy, so I decided to have a go. The results were...mixed.
O-Shizuka, niece to the emperor and heir to the throne, and Shefali, daughter of the Qorin leader, are destined from birth to be together. As her country suffers from the threat of encroaching demons, Shizuka takes matters into her own hands. Together, she and Shefali set out to save both their nations, while also exploring their superhuman abilities and their fascination with each other.
Look, let's get the cat out of the bag. There's a review of this on Goodreads that calls out all the book's inherent problems with mashing together Asian cultures and stereotypes. There are things here that are clearly Chinese, other things clearly Japanese, and still other things clearly Mongolian. As a white woman, I probably would have missed some of the points the reviewer brings up, but I can easily see where she gets her ire. So it's worth noting that this book could be massively offensive to Asian readers.
While it is definitely nice to see a world that isn't European in origin, the worldbuilding leaves plenty to be desired. It leans so heavily on real-world analogs, and the few original things inserted to make it a "fantasy" are barely covered in the book's nearly 500 pages. Shefali and Shizuka are....gods, maybe? Demons? There's something supernatural about them, for sure, but it's never quite quantified except that they are *special.* Nobody seems even remotely interesting in finding out why or how, including them.
And while the characters ho and hum about how deadly the area near the Wall of Flowers has become recently and how the kingdom might be in a lot of danger because of this demon general...it goes nowhere. The demons only serve as a plot device to cause conflict through a *single* encounter with Shefali. After that, they fade back into the backdrop, purpose served. You'll be left wondering why what seems like it should be a key plotline is barely even addressed.
So it won't surprise you when I say there isn't much of a plot. The book is far, far more focused on the romance between Shizuka and Shefali, with much of the book simply detailing their daily lives together, from their childhoods through to adulthood. This makes the beginning drag mightily; I really don't need the characters' life stories from birth.
Speaking of which, the structure doesn't hold up. The Tiger's Daughter is written as a long letter from Shefali to Shizuka, interspersed with chapters of present-day Shizuka wallowing in her misery. The structure is meant to justify the second person POV. But I ask you - if you were writing a letter to someone, even if that someone was the love of your life, WHY would you include your entire life story if you grew up together?
Almost everything that happens in this book is something that Shizuka was present for, so it makes no sense for Shefali to be narrating all of this in her letter. Especially when, as you learn at the end, she has something pressing to tell Shizuka. You can write in second person and make it work (Jemisin's The Broken Earth series uses it to great effect and justifies it too), but I struggled to suspend my disbelief on it here.
Despite all this, The Tiger's Daughter does have a few redeeming qualities. It's wonderful to see a culture where women warriors make up the majority of the cast; the story centers heavily on its women, including Shefali and Shizuka's mothers and their famous friendship. It's still rare to see this much passing of the Bechdel Test in fantasy fiction, and I'm grateful that it's becoming more common.
The romance is exquisite, and it did feel touching, particularly in the later half when Shizuka really goes to Shefali's defense against other people in their lives. The prose is definitely beautiful, and Rivera paints some lovely (and some horrific) pictures. And the second half of the book, if you can make it that far, moves much more quickly and is far more interesting than the slow first half.
But in the end, I'm left feeling lukewarm about the whole thing. It wasn't great, possibly not even good, but I've read worse books. I finished it; it didn't make me ragequit. I didn't overtly hate it; the good things balanced out some of the bad. But there was so much potential here for a unique fantasy adventure that just didn't pan out. I guess "disappointed" is the best word for where I'm at.