Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
How often do we get to glimpse the heart of a book?
One of my favorite things to do, both as an avid reader and a media student, is picking apart the overarching themes in narratives that I love. I enjoy a grand action-packed fantasy quest as much as anyone else, but there’s just something deeply satisfying about digging deeper—uncovering the big ideas at the core of a story, the questions it wants to ask. So, friends, I am over the moon to be hosting acclaimed SFF author Aliette de Bodard here today with a discussion on the themes of abuse, healing, and colonialism in her newest fantasy novella, Fireheart Tiger.
For long-time readers of the blog, you might recognise Aliette from an interview we did for Asian Heritage Month last year (serendipitously, it also features some discussion of Lunar New Year as well, which is currently right around the corner)! Today, Aliette is back as the familiar turquoise, tea-sipping East Asian dragon we know and love, and we’re very honored to have her grace the Pond once more with her thoughtful wisdom. The post she wrote resonated so much with me personally, and I’m so excited to share it with you!
Be forewarned that our discussion of the book today will contain some rather heavy spoilers, so if you haven’t picked up the book yet—now is the perfect time! And trust us: a romantic fantasy set in a pre-colonial Vietnamese world featuring sapphic princesses, fire elementals, and magical politics? It doesn’t get much better than this.
Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard
Fire burns bright and has a long memory….
Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace.
Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions.
Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?
Aliette de Bodard:
TW: Abuse | This post contains spoilers for Fireheart Tiger.
In my book Fireheart Tiger, the main character Thanh is a princess who was sent abroad to the coloniser nation of Ephteria as a hostage, and who goes home after the Ephterian palace catches fire. She’s set aside at court, and has resigned herself to an unremarkable, unvalued life—when Eldris, the princess of Ephteria with whom Thanh had a relationship as a teenager, comes back into her life. Eldris wants Thanh to be her wife—and much more from Thanh’s home country. But the fire that burnt down Ephteria’s palace is haunting Thanh, and showing her there might be other choices for Thanh to be free…
Fireheart Tiger is a romantic sapphic fantasy, but first and foremost I wanted to write about a character who learns to break free from abusive relationships, and I wanted to have that plot line set side by side with a larger mirroring one about colonisation and unequal relationships, as exemplified by Thanh’s own country of Bình Hải and their relationship with the much more powerful Ephteria. I’m not saying colonisation is abuse (it’s a little more complicated than that, and I don’t want to diminish either by equating them), but I’m deliberately setting up thematic parallels in the micro and macro narrative.
On the micro level, Thanh is dealing with two abusive relationships: the first one is the one she has with her mother, and the second one is the one she has with Eldris. There’s this perception from movies that abuse is only real when it’s physical, but that’s obviously not the only kind. And while it also happens without warning, some abuse happens after plenty of warning flags preceding it, and a pattern of escalation. With Fireheart Tiger, I wanted to depict two different abusive relationships: the one Thanh has with her mother, which is all emotional abuse; and the one she has with Eldris, which starts out as emotional and escalates to physical. These are contrasted to Thanh’s relationship with the fire elemental Giang, which is a friendship where Thanh is free to be herself.
On the macro level, the relationship between Ephteria and Bình Hải mirrors the relationship between Ephterian princess Eldris and Hải princess Thanh: another strand in the themes that I’m building on. Ephteria presents itself as outwardly reasonable and caring, as helpful. That’s exactly the same that Eldris presents herself to Thanh, setting herself up as someone who’ll finally make Thanh free of an overbearing abusive mother, and free to be herself—and like Eldris’s behaviour, this is just a mask over violence. What Ephteria wants to have, it’ll take by force: Eldris’s attitude (and the behaviour of the other Ephterians) prefigures what Eldris does to Thanh. They are also a different thing on a different level: Thanh’s relationship with Eldris complicates the negotiations for her, and creates additional problems that Thanh needs to deal with.
With Thanh’s mother, I went for very subtle things that don’t necessarily come up as red flags immediately, but that, in the aggregate, do. Thanh’s mother likes to talk about the future of Bình Hải, but what she really means is the future that she envisions. She consistently demeans Thanh, ignores and devalues Thanh’s wishes, and the only time she shows concern for Thanh’s wellbeing, tellingly, is when Thanh looks set to make a decision that her mother disapproves of. She also moves goalposts: Thanh is in charge of negotiations with Ephteria and of ensuring the best bargain for Bình Hải, until she makes a move her mother disapproves of, at which point she’s taken to task and humiliated in front of her mother’s advisor for overreaching. I wanted this to be subtle because it has been going on for so long that Thanh has completely normalised it. When Thanh gets assaulted, and Thanh’s mother’s only reaction is to blame Thanh for making trouble, the reader isn’t surprised, and neither is Thanh: it’s the same thing Thanh’s mother has been doing the entire time.
With Eldris, I chose a slightly different tactic. I wanted Eldris to be seductive, to appeal to Thanh. Eldris is the abuser who starts by turning on the charm. On paper, she sounds like a dream come true: the first lover who’s never forgotten about Thanh, who comes across half a world for her. Who wants marriage and promises an equal relationship, and supports Thanh getting free of her abusive mother.
That’s only on paper, because the warning signs are there and abundant: Eldris leaves Thanh no space, and repeatedly pressures her or speaks for her. In the marriage proposal scene, I wrote unbalanced dialogue: Eldris speaks five to six times more than Thanh, whose dialogue is mostly monosyllabic, and Thanh’s inner dialogue is all discomfort, which Eldris doesn’t take into account.
I also set up Eldris’s temper: it’s mentioned repeatedly, and it’s something that Thanh is afraid of. She doesn’t want to contradict Eldris. I also wanted to raise red flags for the violence: Eldris is violent towards Captain Pharanea when Pharanea threatens Thanh, a scene that in many fantasy books would be thrilling, involving a drawn sword used in Thanh’s defence. But I made that scene as deeply wrong as I could: Pharanea is unarmed, and Eldris threatens her into apologising. She draws blood for the sake of an apology: her reaction is all out of proportion, and Thanh knows this.
The final building block with Eldris was the escalation into physical violence. it happens quickly (as it often does), and I set that up so that Eldris would cross multiple lines in a very short time. She bursts into Thanh’s bedroom without knocking (a literal invasion), throws Thanh’s private things on the bed (from verbal to physical against things), tears a dress from Thanh’s grasp and then grabs Thanh herself by the shoulder (from physical against things to physical against Thanh). I chose to break it off there because I didn’t want to go into major traumatic territory, but I didn’t want to let it go uncommented on, so Thanh herself reflects on what would likely have happened if she hadn’t run away from Eldris when Eldris raised a hand against her.
Finally, I chose to have Thanh interact with Giang, the fire elemental. Giang comforts Thanh. She listens to Thanh. She leaves Thanh her space. I set her up as the contrast to Eldris, and also as the truth-teller: Giang might be unaware of the subtleties of human relationships, but she knows harm when she can see it, and she calls it out. It is with Giang that Thanh messes up and offers apologies: this is in contrast with Mother’s habit of making each of Thanh’s “transgressions” into a symptom of Thanh being selfish and uncaring about the good of her own country. With Giang, Thanh can be herself—which includes messing up and asking for forgiveness, and having honest conversations—and being called out herself for failing to see who Eldris is. With Giang, Thanh can finally make her own choices—regarding Eldris, regarding her mother, regarding Bình Hải’s relationship with Ephteria: the choices that are at the heart of the book.
Breaking free of abuse means healing, and I didn’t want to imply that it was magical and instant. When Thanh faces Eldris again after the attempted assault, she’s scared, and half of her still longs for Eldris—even as she knows what Eldris did. The final scene after this was meant to be a cautious exploration of what that healing could look like: a promise that it was not going to be easy or smooth, but that healing would happen, that Thanh was now in a position to start that process.
Writing Fireheart Tiger meant weaving all of those things in. It meant trying to do Thanh’s character justice—to be compassionate and nuanced with the set of choices that I made. Abuse is complex and multifaceted, and I can only hope I successfully portrayed it—that I successfully showed how Thanh came to recognise what she was going through—how she was able to set herself free—and to finally heal now that she had her own space, now that she was safe.
About the Author
Aliette de Bodard writes speculative fiction: she has won three Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and four British Science Fiction Association Awards, and was a double Hugo finalist. Her most recent book is Seven of Infinities (Subterranean Press), a space opera in which a poor principled scholar and a disillusioned sentient spaceship must solve a murder, but find themselves falling for each other. She also wrote Fireheart Tiger (Tor.com, Feb 2021), a sapphic romantic fantasy set in a Vietnamese-esque court. She lives in Paris. Visit her at https://www.aliettedebodard.com.