Right so! I didn’t get to read all of the (admittedly long) list I made for myself for F/F February, but that’s alright because I decided to follow the lead of Beyond a Bookshelf and start doing F/F Friday. Since I post twice a week, and queer stuff is maybe 80% of what I read, it shouldn’t be too hard!
To start off this week, let me tell you a bit more about these two audiobook novellas I just read!
The Empress of Salt and Fortune: A young royal from the far north is sent south for a political marriage. Alone and sometimes reviled, she has only her servants on her side. This evocative debut chronicles her rise to power through the eyes of her handmaiden, at once feminist high fantasy and a thrilling indictment of monarchy
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain: The cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover—a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty—and discover how truth can survive becoming history.
I don’t feel bad reviewing them together because they can be read pretty much as standalones, although the main character, Chih, is in both. I feel that the summary of the first one is a bit misleading, though.
So we find ourselves with Chih, a cleric on their way to chronicle an eclipse in the capital, along with their… friend? acolyte? a little bird who remembers everything. They stop near Lake Scarlet to inventory the palace of the former Empress, which has just been unsealed, and they find there, besides priceless artefacts, the empress’s old handmaiden, Rabbit, who also journeyed there for unknown reasons.
After this introduction, each chapter starts with an object’s description, followed by Rabbit’s explanation on its significance to the empress, and its place in history.
I think this is crucial to explain this, because for me it’s this unusual take on the nested story structure that I found really interesting. I did care about the empress’s story, but I was more interested in Rabbit, and in her relationship to her. And I liked the idea that we were seeing history as it was being recorded – and it being recorded from the point of view of the servant, not the empress or any kind of royalty. It also interrogated in different ways what you’d see if faced with a historical artefact, versus the real story that might be behind it. If Chih alone was making that catalog, we would know only a tiny, uncomplete fraction of the story.
It was a beautifully told story that fit the format perfectly, and made me want to read more so… I quickly moved on to book 2!
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain also follows Chih, but this is basically the only link. They’re on this voyage across a mountain pass when they get caught by three speaking tigers, and have to bargain for their life. This is once again the beginning of a nested story, but this one has actual stakes to it. It’s a story both the tigers and humans know, and they don’t exactly tell it the same way, so Chih better not disappoint!
I loved that it added this level of suspense to the narration compared to the first novella, which was a lot more peaceful. The tone fit each story very well. But what it allowed in this one, was the possibility for two voices to tell the same story, with sometimes contradicting views. As the tigers correct Chih’s account, a very different picture of the tale takes form. And of course you start wondering why the changes happened to the human version (or which is true, or is it a mix of both?)
I think what both stories do really well is that they make you care for these characters, but they also make you question the way stories (legends and history, in particular) are formed and whether you can truly believe them. All the while weaving different tales of queerness together through the layers of story.
I think the second one was slightly stronger due to that extra suspense, but they were both really enjoyable!
Get the books
*these are affiliate links, I may receive a small commission (or a free month on Scribd) for purchases made through these links, at no extra cost to you