Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This novella is an intense character study of a young woman who breaks free from a toxic relationship and in so doing reclaims her own power.
Thanh has returned to her own country after ten years as a "guest" (political hostage) in a neighboring kingdom. She is now set to negotiate trade agreements with a delegation from said kingdom. But the delegates include the Princess Eldris, heir to the throne and Thanh's first love; she broke off their affair after six months, before Eldris could get tired of her. Now Eldris has come back into her life, intent on not only taking up where they left off but marrying Thanh. However, as Thanh will discover, Eldris' love is a gilded cage, not much different than the one Thanh's mother, the Empress of Binh Hai, has imprisoned her in.
And there is unfinished business from her stay in Eldris' country. Because eight years ago the royal palace in the capital city, Yosolis, burned down under mysterious circumstances. And Thanh remembers finding a servant girl, Giang, in the chaos and pulling her to safety. But no one else remembers a Giang even working at the palace. Worse, incidents of fire have followed Thanh ever since (in one scene, she's drinking tea with the delgation and looks down to see the soggy tea leaves in her cup starting to burn). There is a mystery here she has to solve, and she has to make decisions about her relationship with Eldris so she can move on with her life.
There's not much room for worldbuilding in this story, and the fantasy element is relatively light--as we discover, Giang is a fire elemental who unwittingly set fire to the palace in Yosolis. The weight of the narrative rests on Thanh's relationship with Eldris, and her discovery that the princess is not the person she wants and perhaps never was. The story also untangles Thanh's relationship with her mother, the Empress, and ends with Thanh's life in the court irrevocably changed.
This is a short, quick read that nevertheless has some valuable things to say about asserting one's power and finding one's purpose in life.
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