The Tiger's Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

The Tiger’s Daughter was one of the hottest anticipated debuts of the year – The premise of an East Asian inspired fantasy – steeped in beautiful folklore, bringing to life an epic love story between two female leads, destined for greatness, for ‘Godliness’ right from their birth – is just too good a premise to be missed out on. And after having bulldozed through the 500-odd pages in a scramble to get to the finish, I am not disappointed. Not at all! Definitely one of the standout works for 2017.

In fact, this is a wonderfully intimate yet epic work of fantasy featuring two of the unlikeliest heroines you would encounter in the genre. A spoiled, cocky princess of the Hokkoran Empire (closely resembling Japan) O-Shizuka who believes in her divinity from get-go and dismisses the world around her, openly flouting rules and tradition. And her best friend cum lover, Barsalayaa Shefali, the future Kharsa (like a tribe or clan leader) of the Quorin (A horse loving tribal nomadic folk who love the steppes) who would blindly follow Shizuka to the ends of the world and beyond. The story unfolds as a really long letter, from Shefali to Shizuka taking the readers through the times from when they were really young children when they first met, at the tender age of three – till the time they part, at the age of seventeen. The narrative is in second person with the letter tracing the star-crossed lovers’ journey and their intimate and beautiful relationship as it grows from uncertain companions to friends to lovers as they grow older, standing up against the whole world, headstrong and brazenly confident in their prowess as divinely blessed warriors, buoyed on by that unshakeable talent of the young to believe that the sun shines from between their legs.

The quality of the writing is absolute gold – Must give it to her, Arsenault can bring a page alive with her words, sharp and cutting as the cold cruel winds of the Quorin steppes or lively and sparkling as the rooftops of the Jade Palaces in Hokkoran. And so the narrative of the story, despite being a debut reads like a polished gem. As I finished the book realizing ultimately this is actually one helluva long letter, I also realized this is sort of Arsenault’s paean to this genre that she probably loves. It’s the two characters who put the shine in this spangled narrative throughout. Especially Shefali, who hogs the most limelight as we read and get to know this beautiful dangerous world through her eyes, growing up with her. It’s fresh, original and incredibly compelling in its raw earnestness, the sparkling dew-fresh love that slowly blossoms between these two women, fierce warriors in their own rights, destined to either save the world or destroy it in their wanton heady youthful impetuosity.

The love story forms the crux of the book ( And yes – it does get a bit tiring when we read about the innumerable ways in which Shefali realizes that she loves/likes/adores/worships Shizuka) but the plot does hint at the dangers of the “demons” – generals to this ‘Traitor’ possibly the incarnation of devil in this world, beyond this Wall that is protecting the world. However it’s only glimpses we get. It is teaser stuff really and I really hope that as the series progress, this larger plotline wheels forward. I am not complaining much, as the beautiful world of the Hokkaran and the Quorin cultures, the Jade or the Bronze Palace intrigues or the hunting sessions in the cruel cold cutting winds of the steppes, kept me pretty well invested in the story. The plot device of a letter and a second person narrative tracing back the lives of these two fates entwined with each other right from childhood was pretty neatly played out. (Though now in retrospect I wonder what does the person gain by walking her lover through all the incidents that happened in their lives together, once more.)

Shefali is shy, bashful but blessed with humility and empathy. She’s also a great Quorin warrior, in her tribe’s tradition having taken after her fierce mother, Alshara – one of the greatest warriors in the Quorin history who had united the tribes under her and rallied against the atrocities of the Hokkoran empire. Shefali’s thoughtful character is well balanced by Shizuka’s spoiled bratty attitude that reeks of entitlement and royal power. Shizuka herself is one of the best swordsmen in the whole empire and knows it, frequently challenging people into a duel until first blood or foolhardily jumping into fights or quarrels. Her hot-headed outbursts are the counterfoil to the practical no-nonsense approach that Shefali has towards life and this contrast plays out beautifully in the background of their burgeoning relationship.

In addition, Arsenault also goes on to give us formidable side characters. Punchy and gutsy women – like Alshara, Shefali’s mother and Otgar, her cousin. Or the vile Emperor who cannot wait to see his niece married off, simply because he is jealous of her rising popularity. They frequently come in at different points of the story and I firmly believe that each of them should have their own stories later.
As we come to the end of this book, I realize I didn’t really get to see the Godly warriors take on a flood of demons as I was led to believe by the blurb of the book. Nor did Shizuka essentially fulfill her destiny to rid the world of the Traitor. But hopefully more on this with the next in the series, the Phoenix Empress. Since both the Japanese and the Mongol culture for me, is just hearsay or Wiki research or perhaps Netflix series like Marco Polo, I cannot comment on the disparaging remarks about appropriation and thus, some heavy handed lazy writing that she has been accused of. But nothing takes away from the core of this story: This lush beautiful world fraught with dangers and the absolutely amazing characterization. You deserve to meet Shefali, the Tiger’s daughter and O-Shizuki, the Phoenix Empress. The next book is coming right up with the gorgeous cover announced. All in! ringside view. 


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