Genre: high fantasy
Queer representation: cis lesbian
Warnings: the same as with book one
Rating: 3 stars
note: the cover above, from Amazon, differs from the cover I received both in review paperback and final paperback. My copy has the tag line: ‘Lose Yourself to Save the World.’
I both received an ARC of this book through my reviewer gig, and bought a copy because I so loved book one (while still recognizing its problematic behavior). My professional review is posted here. I wanted to take some time, however, to discuss some additional elements to the book that either didn’t belong in the pro review, or I was unsure how to best discuss in the third person.
THE TIGER’S DAUGHTER was, for me, a breathtaking epic fantasy centered on the love between two women and the clashing of their cultures. It was also problematic in terms of addressing colorism within Japanese and Mongolian communities, and blended elements of China into Japan in a way that was confusing and, in some cases, offensive. Some of the more blatant problems were summed up in this Goodreads review.
I chose to preorder THE PHOENIX EMPRESS anyway, because its predecessor had so moved me and I really wanted to see what became of Shefali in particular (I never really cared for Shizuka). I mean, you get semi-possessed by a demon and then covertly marry your lover to upset her emperor uncle? Heck yeah I want to read that sequel!
And the sequel was…meh. Well, parts of it were ZOMG I AM SO INTO THIS!! and parts were ‘I’d DNF this if I didn’t have to leave a review.’ So, let’s break it down.
As far as I can tell (and I am not an expert on Japanese, Chinese, or Mongolian culture), a lot of the bigger cultural issues were rectified. There was only one slur in this book (there were many rice-related ones in THE TIGER’S DAUGHTER that caused a lot of harm to readers), and it was truncated halfway through by a character chastising the other. Arsenault Rivera also appeared to try to distance the imitation China, Japan, and Mongolia from the actual places by adding more distinct fantasy elements, developing the world farther away from the base countries, and adding in additional queer elements. Which brings me to…
THE TIGER’S DAUGHTER fell into the trap of ‘homosexuality isn’t discussed as having existed in feudal/medieval times so therefore it wouldn’t exist during the fictional time of my book, either.’ Which is, of course, ridiculous, because dragons, demons, magic swords, magic hair, mermaids, whatever, actually didn’t exist ever, but a couple of ladies macking near a river is clearly stretching disbelief.
So it was nice to see a mention of the frequency of homosexual relationships in THE PHOENIX EMPRESS, with a reference being made to many types of pairings, as well as people existing outside the gender binary. +1 for breaking that trope!
Here, however, is where the book fell flat for me. Book one wove a strangely compelling tale through epistolary form. It wove action and romance and character development evenly, beautifully, and once you got over the glut of names, the book read smoothly. THE PHOENIX EMPRESS, on the other hand, was completely out of balance. The first half of the book went between the author telling you what the second half of the book would do (I hated this), and the more compelling reuniting of Shefali and Shizuka, and dealing with Shizuka’s alcoholism.
The relationship part of the first half was well done. Shefali and Shizuka were believable wives with believable problems and that tenderness-laced-with-steel that makes for compelling character interactions. Unfortunately that was perhaps 25% of the first 250 pages, with the rest rumination by Shizuka, painful info dumps, or even more painful prose that, instead of being enchanting like in book one, skewed more towards the purple.
I can’t say that it was worth sticking it out for the second half, but I did truly enjoy the second half. The action picked up dramatically here, and I was treated to Shizuka’s battle with the black bloods and her retaking of the Empire (not a spoiler–you learn she did this on like page five but don’t actually get to see it until well past the halfway point). I enjoyed learning more about Shefali’s demon. I loved the magic of their godhoods and how they both explored their gifts. And I adored the last chapter or so, where the two have to choose between saving Shefali’s life or battling The Traitor (big head baddie who is also a magical god).
I think there was a really sound book in here–a roughly 300 page book that was consumed by 200 pages of useless fluff. If overly flower language and endless metaphor (and I mean endless) are your things, or if you love deep interpersonal relationship play with no plot movement (no shame, sometimes I’m in the mood for that too), this is your book. If you’re hoping to see some sort of forward plot momentum, start around page 250 or 300. You won’t have missed anything, trust me.