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Hugh Likes Fiction: Fireheart Tiger

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Fireheart Tiger
Written by Aliette de Bodard
Published by Tor.com
Read on Kindle

The Skinny: A tightly plotted fantastic historical romance about power and politics

Thanh is a princess bereft of options. Sent as a hostage to the distant and powerful nation of Ephteria, she returned home after the royal palace burned down with her inside. She still has nightmares of the fire. Lately, these have been getting worse, and she’s been smelling smoke and seeing flames in impossible places.

 Worse still, her cold and uncaring mother the Empress has put her in charge of the latest negotiations with Ephteria led by her former lover the princess Eldris. Caught between impossible duties, irresponsible desires, and the terrifying prospect that she is either a witch or madwoman, Thanh fights to make a future for herself where she remains free.

 The author of novellas such as The Teamaster and the Detective and The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, I have been a fan of Aliette de Bodard’s writing for years. She has a signature grasp of political melodrama, with characters caught between the things they want and the duties and destinies of empires. She is a master of using that drama to humanize her characters, even when they’re sentient spaceships. And while I won’t spoil the twist in this novella, she uses that skill no less effectively in this secondary world echoing historical Vietnam and France in the colonial period. Thanh is an intriguing protagonist, limited in her options and constrained by her position. But she is always moving, always fighting, even while she bemoans her lack of power. This novella burns through fantasy and romance tropes like well, again, no spoilers but it is a delightful trick to see her use those tropes and the echoes of Vietnamese history to such excellent effect here. In another kind of story, Eldris would have been the protagonist with all her poise and strength, swaggering into a political negotiation with her sword bouncing on her hip.

 The major complaint I have for this story is that I would’ve liked to have seen more of it. de Bodard confines the action to the Imperial Palace, with lots of discussion concerning Thanh’s sisters and the Empire’s neighbors. While I understand the reason this story is so intimate, I would’ve also liked to have seen a longer novel, or perhaps a sequel that incorporates more of those elements.

 Fireheart Tiger is an enchanting queer fantasy romance that burns away the illusions and deconstructs some of the tropes of the subgenre. You can find it in print from your local indie bookstore, or digitally from the usual storefronts.

Everyday Drabbles #689: Crisis of Faith

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The Paladin sat in contemplation. She was caught between her duty and the voice of her heart. Was she any better than the supposedly evil people she killed?
She rose and passed through corridors lined with holy relics. They were crafted from gold donated from pious kings or reconsecrated from heathen temples. But where had that gold come from originally? Was it faith or merely a display?
She decided to lay down her sword and walk until she could say for sure.
In the end, she never stopped walking but left a trail of mercy and hope in her wake.

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Everyday Drabbles #686: Overgrown Station

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She climbed through the abandoned train station, the cat always just a few steps ahead. The platform had a tree growing out of it, and the tracks were obscured by underbrush.
She heard the whistle and watched the train pull in, unhindered by the plant life covering the tracks. The train was an antique, painted white and green. She couldn’t make out the destination.
The doors opened and the cat sauntered onboard. She followed and took a seat with a threadbare cushion. She looked out the window and saw the ghosts of the station’s past waving as they steamed away.

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Everyday Drabbles #685: The Key to the Kingdom

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She received the ornate silver key with her other regalia on the day she became queen and asked her seneschal what it unlocked.
“Why, nothing, Your Majesty. It is symbolic.”
“The key to the kingdom, as it were?”
He chuckled. “Quite right, ma’am.”
As her reign progressed, she couldn’t get the old key out of her mind. She took to wearing it looped on a chain and wandered the corridors at night, looking for a keyhole.
It was three months before she found the door in the lowest depths of the palace basements and discovered how deep her kingdom went.

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Everyday Drabbles #684: Fire Cat

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The wizard’s cat was on fire.
It didn’t seem distressed. It just sat placidly and groomed itself. But the guest watched as pale flames and smoke rose from its back.
The wizard returned to the sitting room, the tea tray following behind with military precision.
“Do you know that your familiar is on fire?”
The mage smiled indulgently. “That’s just an experiment. Elemental pets are going to be the next big thing.”
“Elemental pets?”
“Oh, yes. I have an outstanding grass dog growing out back as well.”
The cat rubbed up against the back of a chair, setting it alight.

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Everyday Drabbles #681: Through the Forest

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“I’m telling you, it’s a monster,” the fighter said, raising his axe toward a shape in the gloom. The ranger sighed. They’d never get through the forest at this rate.
“That’s a mushroom growing on a dead tree. Don’t they have fungi under that mountain of yours?”
“Not ones that are six feet tall with claws!”
“Those are branches. It’s not going to attack you. This forest is perfectly safe. Ah!” The snare trap circled the elf’s foot and sent him hurtling skyward.
“Safe, you say?”
“I got distracted. Now cut me down before whoever set this thing shows up!”

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Everyday Drabbles #680: Getting the Band Together

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The witch began the summoning. She swung her ritual stone, with its glimmering silver chain, in all directions. The room filled with miasmic haze.
Her grandmother said all a real witch needed was two sticks and a bad attitude. But she wasn’t just a witch. She was a performer.
Three figures emerged, lanky and wolf-like with skulls for faces. They bowed to her and went to their instruments.
“Let’s all try and stay on key today,” she said as she picked up her guitar.
They weren’t the best musicians in Faerie, but they made one hell of an album cover.

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Everyday Drabbles #677: Night Song

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The witch rode out into the center of the lake behind her cabin. The setting sun was already leaving streaks of gold in the black water.
She took up The Instrument, as her grandfather called it. It was not unlike a violin, and it made the sweetest music she’d ever heard.
She passed the bow over the strings, and soft, silver light glittered overhead. She began in earnest. The stars burst forth in the darkness, shining brightly.
The witch knew it was time to take on an apprentice. But she didn’t want to give up playing the stars into being.

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Everyday Drabbles #677: Closed for the Season

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The beach was closed.
The snack bars brought down their rolling shades and the umbrellas snapped shut. The blankets shook themselves out and folded themselves. The sand blew off and the shells retreated into the water.
The waves came to a gradual stop, and the world was perfectly still. Then the ocean receded one last time.
A beachcomber passed over the bare stones with a broom, sweeping up and putting away the last of the beach chairs.
When he was done, he looked at the stretch of empty miles and nodded to himself. They would all be back next year.

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Hugh Likes Fiction: Elder Race

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Elder Race
Written by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Published by tor.com

The Skinny – A braided novella that plays well with two very different set of tropes.

Lynesse Fourth Daughter is a princess on a noble quest. Perhaps the queen forbid her to get involved, and she doesn’t really know what she’s doing, but she’s off to a good start. She’s even recruited the legendary sorcerer Nyrgoth Elder to her side. Except that ‘Nyrgoth’ is in fact Nyr Illim Tevitch, a shlubby, depressed anthropologist from Earth, who should be studying the regressed society of interstellar colonists instead of playing wizard. But the rest of his team headed back to Earth centuries ago, and he hasn’t heard anything from them. And he’s lonely and depressed. But everything should work out fine, right?
Elder Race mixes far-future science fiction with old school sword and sorcery. Author Adrian Tchaikovsky weaves a deft course between genre tropes and delivers a stunning gut-punch of a novella packed with complex characters.
The story is split between the points of view of the main characters, switching off between Lynesse and Nyr as they go to confront a ‘demon’ causing havoc on the planet’s surface. Nyr is sure that this is just another bit of old technology that’s gotten out of hand. Lyn is sure that the Ancient Sorcerer will have no problems dealing with evil magic, as he did centuries before, when her ancestor called him. Of course, they’re both super wrong.
One of my favorite tricks Tchaikovsky plays with in this story is in the use of language. Nyr is constantly frustrated by the fact that he can’t even confess that he’s a charlatan, because all of this post-Earth cultur’e’s words for ‘scientist’ are also cognates for ‘wizard.’ By shifting perspective, the reader gets to understand both characters better than they do each other. There is even a great sequence where their text appears side by side, and the reader sees the same story as Nyr means to tell it and as Lyn hears it.
Tchiakovsky takes a warrior princess and a displaced sci-fi crew member and puts them into what amounts to a comedy of manners, with each struggling to both use the other to their own ends, and to understand one another. It’s a clever little story, and it surprised and moved me more than I expected.
Elder Race is a delightful spec-fic gem of a novella, and I highly recommend picking it up, whether you’re a fan of quests or post-human existential angst, it’s a cocktail sure to delight the palate.

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