Tuesday, June 1, 2021

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (The Singing Hills Cycle #2), by Nghi Vo

Tordotcom, ISBN 9781250786166, December 2020

Cleric Chih has set out on another mission to gather stories for the Singing Hills abbey, this time without Almost Brilliant, the talking bird who normally accompanies them. They are headed up and over the mountains, it's too cold, and Almost Brilliant is sitting a clutch of eggs. Chih misses the bird, but they have a job to do.

However, along the way, they find a young mammoth scout and her mammoth to take them over the heights to enable them to reach their destination. Riding a mammoth is a learning experience for Chih, which, after all, is what they are out here for.

It's unfortunate that even as the are getting close to the way station where they will spend the night, a group of three tigers finds their trail and hunts them the rest of the way to the station. The keeper of the way station, Bao-so, is nearly killed, but the skilled riding of the mammoth scout, Si-yu, and the steadiness and determination of the mammoth, Piluk make possible Bao-so's rescue and their entry into the barn. Piluk turns around to face the tigers, and they won't charge her, but they also won't leave. A temporary truce is negotiated, in which the tigers won't try to attack them as long as Chih keeps them properly entertained with telling a story about a tiger and her human lover. They might even let the three humans live, if the story is good enough.

Which, in part, means not too far off the tigers' own version of the same story.

The human story is focused on Dieu, the woman who is the tiger's lover. It leaves out things that are important to the tigers, and reflects the culture of the human empire of Anh, not the culture of the tigers.

Chih tells the story they know, and accepts and writes down all the "corrections"--some corrections, and more expansion and addition of the tiger Ho Thi Thao's perspective and cultural viewpoint. We get the story of Dieu, a scholar on her way to the capital to take the exams that will enable her to become an imperial official, and of Ho Thi Thao, the tiger who might easily have decided to eat her--and does eat her favorite book. Instead, Dieu recites poetry, and Ho Thi Thao rescues her from a very sticky situation, and they become lovers. And then there is misunderstanding and betrayal, and the possibility of worse.

We also get the story of Chih and Si-yu trying to keep the tigers sufficiently engaged in the story that the tigers don't decide to eat them before help can arrive.

It's a rich, fascinating story, that deepens the world-building of the world of the Anh empire. We also learn more of Chih, seeing more of their personality--their intelligence, flexibility, and impulsivity. We get a fuller, better understanding of Chih.

The tigers that might eat them are also entertaining characters, three sisters, opinionated, contentious, squabbling as siblings often do.

I really enjoyed this. Highly recommended.

I received this novella free as part of Tor's monthly free ebook program, and am reviewing it voluntarily.

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