The “coming of age” story usually refers to a teen growing up, but real life doesn’t have just one of those moments. And in my experience in young adulthood, finding out who I was happened much farther into my twenties than I’d like to admit—if it truly happened at all. In that way, the main character from Aliette de Bodard’s brisk story Fireheart Tiger, as an heir in a pre-colonial Vietnam-inspired world, is oh-so relatable.
Thanh keeps trying, and failing, to win the approval of her monarch mother, but that doesn’t stop her from forcing herself to be smarter and sharper in hopes of making her mother proud. A visit from a delegation of allies seems the perfect opportunity for Thanh to show her mother that, now approaching her mid-twenties, she’s growing to be a worthy successor. The delegation, however, comes with an added complication: Princess Eldris, with whom Thanh shared a, uh, close relationship when the two were both at the kingdom’s capitol together eight years ago. After initial negotiations, Princess Eldris approaches Thanh with an offer not on the agenda for the delegation’s visit, one of marriage and alliance.
Thanh is taken by the prospect of being close once again to Eldris, and by the opportunity to forge such an alliance between their two countries, even though marrying the princess would mean she was no longer her mother’s heir to rule her home country. She promises to consider the offer, but it isn’t long before another member of the delegation warns Thanh to push for a disadvantageous clause in negotiations or Thanh’s mother would be the next to hear about Thanh’s affair with the princess in the capitol. Strangest of all is the reappearance of Giang, whom Thanh knew only as a mysterious servant girl Thanh saved from a devastating fire that burned down the palace in the capitol. Giang is really a living elemental of fire who inadvertently started the deadly fire, and who has haunted Thanh’s dreams ever since—and followed her home. Thanh’s country, birthright, and safety all hang in the balance, and the only way she can get out of this tangle is to do the one thing Thanh’s mother insists she’s no good at: negotiate.
Fireheart Tiger is a novella, which can sacrifice worldbuilding and pacing in service of a shorter length. Some details are skimmed over here, as well, but not to any real detriment of the story as a whole. The compression of time, however, does make me exhausted for Thanh. As a character, Thanh seems at war with herself, trying so hard to fulfill the vision her mother had for her while not possessing the makings of that exact type of daughter. It’s a relatable conundrum, I think, for many children coming of age and trying to find their voice as adults. Thanh’s mother wants Thanh to fill a specific role, but it’s clear that she has a specific vision for how Thanh should fill it, as well. As a bit of a spoiler, it becomes very clear that Thanh cannot negotiate her way out of this particular pickle by playing by the rules her mother and Eldris’ delegation have drawn up, and finding the courage to press on regardless takes real courage.
But my favorite theme that runs throughout Fireheart Tiger is on love and, more specifically, what is not love. “You love me a lot, don’t you?” Eldris asks Thanh. When Thanh reluctantly agrees, Eldris says, “Then that’s all we really need to be happy, isn’t it?” But Eldris’ version of love feels stifling, too hot and quick in both good and bad ways for Thanh to feel confident in the situation even if her affection for Eldris weren’t being used as blackmail. Meanwhile, Giang’s years of following Thanh have turned into a version of love, too. The conditional feeling Thanh gets from her mother’s love only makes the concept more complicated for Thanh. There’s not a way for me to describe the gentle joy Thanh’s emotional conclusion gave me without fully giving spoilers, other than just to say it was nice to see Thanh learning her own sense of self is more important than the self overlayed upon her by those who say they love her.
Even if Fireheart Tiger were a full novel’s length, it would be more than worth your time to read. That it’s only a novella means there’s no real excuse to not to pick it up.