[This review contains spoilers]
The Singing Hills cycle is a series of stories about storytelling, which happens to be one of my favourite narrative themes. You don’t need to have read the first one (which is also sapphic) in order to appreciate this second instalment. The debut novella does provide a bit more worldbuilding and scene-setting, while this one throws you straight into the middle of the action. Yes, I also love in media res openings.
That being said, all of the action takes place at the start and end, bookending the real meat of the story which is relatively static: none of the characters in the present timeline go through any major personal revelations and most of the present storyline takes place in one location. I specify a present storyline because the story format is similar to the frame storytelling of One Thousand And One Nights: a gifted storyteller must rely on their skill to save their life – in this case the lives of the cleric storyteller Chih (nonbinary, no labels are used but only they / them pronouns apply) and their scout Su-yi (unlucky in her girlfriends) are under threat from the three Sinh shapeshifting tiger sisters.
Chih serves an order of archivists whose task it is to collect oral histories from around their world and memorise them so they can be written down for future generations. The first book delves a bit more into what this entails and the beliefs that are at the core of the order. The cleric is less of an active agent in this story, as they are almost constantly under threat of death from the tigers and it is only when Chih mentions their recording of the tale about another legendary tiger that the tigresses choose not to kill the two travellers right then and there.
You see, the cleric had just journeyed through a region where they first heard the tale of Ho Thi Thao, the tigress who fell in love with a human and was betrayed (note: I will switch between using tiger and tigress to refer to Ho Thi Thao and the three sisters, as the first serves more as a species identifier but the second helps to identify the character as female. The author refers to all tiger characters as tigers, but all named tigers are female). Only, they had been told this story by humans, and once the tigers who are currently threatening them realise this, they decide to keep the two travellers alive only long enough for them to rectify the wrongs in the passing down of the legend. So Chih tells them the version they learned, a version that was dictated by a distant witness fifty years after the events took place, and so was already diluted when it reached Chih even without taking the human’s bias into consideration. The legend is told in stops and starts, returning to the present time to allow for the Sinh tigers to interject and squabble and tell their version of the section that was just shared by Chih.
Thus, the love story of the tigress Ho Thi Thao and scholar-to-be Dieu is told along two different paths, each from the perspective and with the bias of the respective species. I will leave you to discover the various differences, but both stories do seem to agree that, on her way to take the scholarly examinations in the big city, Dieu is waylaid by a tigress and, the only way she survives the encounter is to share her rice cakes and read her a love poem, after which the two spend an undefined amount of time together in the tiger’s cave. When Dieu continues her journey, the tiger follows her and saves her life from a family of fox spirits who were trying to trap her into a marriage with one of their sons, possibly choosing a marriage to the tiger instead.
Ho Thi Thao and Dieu spend some more time together after this sudden brush with death, but Dieu still leaves Ho Thi Thao for the city once more. The tigress again follows her, and in the city Dieu arranges for lodgings that the two share, until the day of the examinations arrives. Dieu leaves a final time, and this is too much for Ho Thi Thao to bear: the moment of betrayal. In the end, we don’t know which of the two characters saves the other, this strongly depends on the version you want to believe, but they do choose to leave the city and live together for the rest of their days.
It’s an intriguing tale, almost a fairy tale in its repeated patterns – which are doubled up on by the telling of the two versions. However, the interjections of the present time and the switching between both the two tales being told and the present storyline unfolding makes for a slightly disjointed reading experience. I do like how this tale emphasises that no story ever exists in one way – even if there is a written down version there will be other versions of it still circulating: it’s just a matter of finding the people who are telling them. I also love how Chih can find a story in any situation, and the first novella especially emphasises that the order they work for has a mission to seek out and preserve precisely those stories which might go unnoticed by the official annals.
The relationship between Dieu and Ho Thi Thao feels more believable in the story told by the tigers, possibly because the human version views the shapeshifting creatures too much as monsters to be worthy of love – another fairy tale theme straight from Beauty and the Beast or East of the Sun (hey! Another story theme I love!). The tiger’s story allows for a whole love between the two characters where their respective species make no difference to the way they feel about each other and they fully see and accept each other for who they are – which really is lovely.
Content warnings: violence, murder, death, blood, gore (almost all at the hands of tigers and people defending themselves from tigers)