Title: When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
Series: The Singing Hills Cycle #2
Author: Nghi Vo
Chih, a cleric from the Singing Hills, is on the road again, collecting knowledge to bring back to their order. This time they’re hiring a scout to guide them through a mountain pass, but along the way they are chased and trapped by a small group of hungry tigers. The only way to survive is to gain time until the arrival of mammoths, and so Chih starts telling them the tale of the tiger Ho Thi Thao and her lover, the scolar Dieu.
A closer look
I admire the skill it takes to write something as short as a novella and create a rich world at the same time. With this one, Nghi Vo brings the reader back to the empire of Ahn, a place we already saw a corner of in The Empress of Salt and Fortune. While they have the same protagonist and general setting, the two stories aren’t connected in any other way and so they are absolutely enjoyable on their own.
In this world, there’s an order of clerics with the main task of collecting and preserving knowledge. History, myths, biographies, legends, even family history are worthy of entering their annals; the clerics are trained to be extremely observant and are usually accompanied by a neixin, a sort of talking bird with the gift of perfect memory. While we had met Chih’s neixin, Almost Brilliant, in the first instalment of the series, this time Chih is travelling alone.
The story begins when Chih meets the scout who will accompany them through the pass, the young Si-yu. They set out on the back of a mammoth, planning to stop at a post to rest before going on to their destination. But they are chased by tigers along the way, and when they reach the post the men who’s supposed to meet them is injured. Trying to buy some time before the tigers decide to eat them, Chih strikes a conversation with them and somehow ends up narrating the story of one of the most famous tigers to ever live, Ho Thi Thao, and how her lover Dieu betrayed her.
The story proceeds from there, with Chih telling the story and the tigers now listening, now interrupting, sometimes even correcting Chih when they think they got the story wrong.
Stories inside stories are one of my favourite tropes, and here it’s made even more interesting because we can see two different versions side by side: the one that survived in the “human” side of the world, and the one that was passed on by the tigers. The amount of details that are interpreted differently due to cultural differences give the world an incredible depth.
Despite its size, the novella manages to capture the reader entirely for the duration of the read; not only the story is original and interesting, but the fact that Chih is a trained cleric allows them to notice a lot of details without it feeling forced, thus helping to depict a vivid picture of the world. Even though they are set in the same world, the differences between this setting and the one in Empress of Salt and Fortune are evident from the first page.
I don’t really want to say much more; it’s so short, it would be too easy to slip into a spoiler discussion. The only thing you need to know is that this is a beautiful story of love, and how listening to different sides of a story can reveal new insights.
My only complaint is that this wasn’t longer, and I really hope the author will add many more entries to this series.