Sam reviews The Phoenix Empress by K Arsenault Rivera

the cover of The Phoenix Empress

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K Arsenault Rivera’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Daughter, ended with a lot of stories left to tell. Both of its main characters, Shefali and Shizuka, had gone on perilous and dramatic adventures only hinted at in the book itself, and their future clearly holds challenges yet to come. But still it ended, closing out with an emotional and satisfying conclusion despite so many unanswered questions. I knew The Tiger’s Daughter was the first book of a trilogy, but I have to wonder if the author knew when she wrote it. Because while its sequel novel, The Phoenix Empress, feels like a natural extension of where things left off, in some ways it feels far more dependent on being part of a trilogy than The Tiger’s Daughter ever did.

Before I worry fans of the first book, let me say that if you liked The Tiger’s Daughter, you will enjoy The Phoenix Empress. For a novel so concerned with how years of trauma can change someone, both Shefali and Shizuka felt completely true to the characters I fell in love with. It’s written like a reverse of The Tiger’s Daughter, with epistolary chapters from Shizuka’s perspective interspersed with present-day narration from Shefali. Getting to suddenly see through Shizuka’s eyes adds a compelling new depth to the story we already know; learning that many of her moments of arrogance and hubris were fueled by uncertainty and fear deeply humanizes her as a character. Also, hearing Shizuka call Shefali handsome for the first time was a revelation—I saw the butch/femme dynamic between them during the first book, but having it signposted so explicitly in the second was spectacular.

But for all that I loved, The Phoenix Empress did have some peculiarities that stuck out to me. The real heart of the book is Shizuka’s story of what happened to her during Shefali’s time away, and how she became empress. After that story ends, however, the book still has a good many chapters left to go, and it’s almost all exposition setting up the last book in the trilogy. These chapters didn’t undermine the emotional weight of Shizuka’s tale, but I can’t say that they built upon it either. Despite still being good writing with good characters, I don’t think the ending served The Phoenix Empress quite as well as it serves the trilogy as a whole.

Overall, The Phoenix Empress does a better job of being part of a fantasy trilogy than it does at being a novel. However, it is still very good, and as a follow up to The Tiger’s Daughter it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Like its predecessor, it can be very intense at times; none of the content warnings listed below are lingered on for very long, but if even a mention is too much for you, you may want to pass this series by. But if you read and loved the first book like I did—well, then I can’t imagine much is going to keep you from reading every book that follows.

Content Warnings: body horror, drowning, gore, cannibalism, mind control, vomiting

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Sam reviews The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

the cover of The Tiger's Daughter

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The Year of the Tiger begins in less than a week, which is a convenient excuse for me to review The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera. Not that I need one; this book is both extremely good, and seems to have flown under a lot of people’s radar. But before I dive in, I need to make one thing very clear:

This book is really intense.

The Tiger’s Daughter belongs to a subcategory of adult fantasy fiction that is not afraid to go hard in its depictions of human-on-human violence. Some of its descriptions are incredibly visceral. That said, it’s not as bad (nor nearly as frequent) as books like R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War or George Martin’s A Game of Thrones; thankfully, The Tiger’s Daughter never strays into pointless grotesqueness. Rivera’s descriptions of violence aren’t shy, but they don’t overstay their welcome either. Most of all, any brutality therein feels like it was put there with purpose, and with a measure of care for the reader. But that’s just my take, and your mileage may vary.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I enjoyed The Tiger’s Daughter immensely. The level of craft in the writing honestly makes me surprised that it’s K Arsenault Rivera’s debut novel. It’s written as a letter from one character to another, with a few framing chapters scattered throughout. The epistolary format can be hard to get right, and Rivera does a good job with it. The pacing might be a little slow at first, but the second person narration and occasional asides from the (diegetic) author of the text works surprisingly well. The fantasy setting is rich and engaging, and the story somehow manages to feel both personal and epic in scope.

The letter in question recounts the early life of Barsalai Shefali, daughter to the leader of a nomadic steppe people called the Qorin. Equally important is O-Shizuka, heir to the powerful empire of Hokkaro. Though their two kingdoms were recently at war, Shefali and Shizuka grow up together by way of an unlikely friendship between their mothers. They are also, unequivocally and without explanation, soulmates. This single truth runs through and underscores everything in the entire book. It is the gravitational constant that holds the story together, and I loved it. Their romance walks the line between the humble humanity of two girls in love, and the world-shaking weight of a relationship that simply must be, and it balances there well.

Also, at the risk of going on too long, I want to note that The Tiger’s Daughter has the best inclusion of a trans character in a fantasy novel that I have ever seen. Not only is the character herself handled comfortably and respectfully, but we’re also told exactly how many mares she owns. I don’t think the author ever explains why this matters (the reason being that pregnant mare’s urine is a rich source of human-usable estrogens—a medical technology known to several real-world steppe cultures for centuries), but of course Shefali understands. Through that understanding, it becomes clear to the reader that several other characters we’ve met have been trans women as well. The entire sequence both cements the existence of trans people in the setting, but also grounds and naturalizes that existence.

I first read The Tiger’s Daughter towards the end of 2020, and the global events of the last few years definitely influenced my experience. It’s the first of a trilogy, and we’ll get to the sequels starting next month—but even as a stand alone novel, if my earlier disclaimer didn’t put you off, I think now would be a good time to read it. Because if you’ve ever gone through a cruel and harrowing few years with a partner, and come out the other side with a love even stronger than when you began; if you’ve ever had a relationship interrupted by distance, where the absence of your lover felt like a hole in the world itself; or if you’ve ever had a love that felt like it began before the stars were formed, that pulls like gravity despite the whole world trying to keep you apart—then The Tiger’s Daughter might be for you.

Content Warnings: gore, hallucinations, eye injuries, mouth/face injuries, sex (lesbian)

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Casey A reviews Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee

Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

C. B. Lee may have taken the most interesting spin ever on “write what you know” as her protagonist, Jessica Tran, is a first generation Asian American bisexual, just like she is, but the world of her story is certainly not Lee’s lived experience. Jess lives in the North American Collective, a super state formed after WW3, and her Nevada town of Andover is home to two superhero metahumans as well as their dastardly rival villains. Trying to describe this book without it sounding like a mid 1990s cartoon is a little difficult, but that’s because Lee uses comic superhero genre tropes as a backdrop to the narrative’s main concerns. Jess has to deal with several social and societal issues, as well as a little teenage drama thrown into the mix, as she juggles disappointing her parents, figuring out her friends, and a new internship with a mysterious employer.

Lee skirts around the usual race metaphor that people use when dealing with super humans, and instead grabs the subject of race head on, acknowledging the difficulties of the migrant experience. Occasionally Lee pops a word or two of Chinese into the dialogue, which is a welcome reminder that having a non-white character can invite more cultural complexity than simply stating a skin colour. In some ways it was a little disappointing to find that slurs which are currently used were still prevalent in the book’s setting, but I can understand that it is true to the experience that Lee was trying to get across.

Overall this book is great fun. It’s got a whole host of queer characters across the LGBTQ spectrum, and I found it was really good at moving focus between friends, family, and the wider world something which other YA books often struggle with. Despite a couple of heavy handed moments, Lee is great at introducing character’s queerness, including the subtle hints at one of the characters being trans before it’s explicitly mentioned.

When it comes to setting this story in the future, I don’t feel it was totally necessary. In many ways, it feels like Lee chose the future because old superhero comics would often set things in the future, or simply because authors often use time as a distancing tool. It could easily be an alternative version of now, rather than over a century from where we are, and I sometimes felt I was reading two different books, one a future sci fi and another a deeply felt modern high school drama. This feeling did ebb somewhat as the plot came together and certain discordant aspects fell into place. If you’re looking for speculative sci-fi you won’t find it here, but I think Lee does effectively use the setting she has created.

The pacing was good, and even with my misgivings about the setting, I found the plot and characters very engaging. I’m glad it’s part of a series, as a large amount of the narrative was a set up to something much larger, and I would certainly recommend this to readers who want something which isn’t too challenging on its own, but might lead to something more.

Casey is a non-binary bookseller and writer, a sometime poet and an all-the-time queer. Their favourite genre is usually sci-fi / fantasy, but they can be found reading kids books and angsty YA whenever the mood strikes. Most of their reads are for audiobooks because they have ADHD and printed text is not their friend. They recently attempted to start a bookstagram which you can find here @know.thy.shelf