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.
Nghi Vo returns to the empire of Ahn and The Singing Hills Cycle in When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, a mesmerizing, lush standalone follow-up to The Empress of Salt and Fortune.
The Singing Hills Cycle
The Empress of Salt and Fortune
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
Into the Riverlands
The novellas of The Singing Hills Cycle are linked by the cleric Chih, but may be read in any order, with each story serving as an entrypoint.
Title: When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain| Series: The Singing Hills Cycle | Author: NGHI Vo | Publisher: Tor | Pub Date: 08/12/2020 | Pages: 128 | ASIN: B087P4CSJF| Genre: Fantasy | Language: English | Source: Publisher | Unstarred Review
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain Review
This is a hard book to review because it uses a distinct framing device which may affect how readers feel about the story. For me, this presented one of the weaknesses with the tale. I didn’t know the characters who were in danger well enough to be invested in their outcome initially. Others may have found that an advantage, because their allegiances could be swayed with the ebb and flow of the narrative. I did warm to them as the story progressed, but I didn’t have enough at the start to be concerned about the people.
In the body of the review, I’m not touching on the sexual references within the story. Please see the content warnings for more information about that content.
What I think makes this story worthy of a read is more about the truth woven into the subtext. We have a cleric telling a story to three tigers, who can change into human form. The story concerns a tiger and her human wife. The version the cleric tells differs from the version the tigers know, which leads to disruptions in Chih’s storytelling while the tigers share their version of events.
Like most historical accounts, there are variations that change how the listener perceives the characters in the story. The tigers don’t mind stories where humans are eaten and their revered tigress is powerful and feared. The people prefer stories that have happier outcomes for the humans.
I found myself thinking about how we ultimately don’t really know the truth about these revered, legendary characters. Truth is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. And maybe that’s the best takeaway of all. When viewing our own history, we view it through the narrative of victors instead of dissecting every perspective. Perhaps little of what we think we know is true. It’s best to hold those narratives loosely and keep an open mind and adjust as new information comes to light.
Now, for some, the disruptions throughout the narrative might be jarring and frustrating. It’s easy to lose track of where you were in one narrative and it’s also easy to find the variations of the story blurring. I feel that reinforces a message you can take, about how easy it is for a story to change shape based on circumstances, but some readers might find it distracting.
Meanwhile, share a good story. You never know when a good story might just provide the cover you need to save your life.
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Potential inference of beastiality
The woman who marries the tiger in the story initially gives the tiger things so the tiger doesn’t kill her. When she runs out of things to use to keep herself alive, she goes home with the tiger. There are references in the narrative to the tiger flirting with the girl and finding her pleasing, but in this context it’s hard to view what follows as consensual, because it seems like the woman has no choice but to go with the tiger if she wants to stay alive.
While the text does not describe sexual acts between the two parties, the inference is that they were intimate. Some might infer the tiger changed form into a human, because the tiger had that capability. But again, I’m not really clear on that part of the story. And since there’s a dispute between the cleric and the tigers about which version is accurate, who really knows what happened? All I can say is, initially the cleric referred to the woman spending a night in the tiger’s cave while the tigers said the woman spent three nights with the tiger. This was tough for me to wrap my head around, because of the story’s potentially an allegory and symbolic, and not meant to have everything taken literally. However, I know someone who was sexually abused, and the abuse involved animals, and they’d find this story triggering. Content warnings are about the readers, and given the potential inference of human-animal relations, I have to say that there’s room for that interpretation here.
Ultimately, the tiger and woman marry, but that doesn’t change the circumstances of their first encounter. And which form tiger assumed during their encounters is open to interpretation.
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