The Upshot: Another exceptional story about stories, the second book in the Singing Hills Cycle is just as magical as the first, with an intriguing Rashomon-esque story – though the ending leaves a bit to be desired.
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (The Singing Hills Cycle, #2), by Nghi Vo Published December 8th, 2020, by Tor.com Kindle Edition, 128 pages Finished Reading January 31st, 2021
I read When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain on a plane ride from my home state of Texas to my current state of Florida. I was in the sky for about three hours, down about leaving family behind and very decidedly not looking forward to the moist Florida climate, and Nghi Vo’s transportive fantasy was my companion for the entire journey. I finished as we were landing and felt the satisfaction not only of a safe flight successfully concluded, but also of a good story well-told.
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is a standalone sequel to The Empress of Salt and Fortune, once again starring Chih, a cleric whose calling is to record the stories she hears. This time, they’re missing Almost Brilliant, their hoopoe companion whose wry commentary was charming in the first book (she’s sitting a clutch of eggs). Almost Brilliant is missed, but Chih’s companion this time, the personable and eccentric mammoth rider Si-yu, just about makes up for it.
Si-yu is escorting Chih through the northern provinces, which are infamous for their mammoth corps and their dark woods. It’s in those woods that Chih and Si-yu encounter the tigers, who can change into human form and talk. While the tigers wish to eat the cleric and their guide, Chih convinces them to tell them a story: the story of a tiger and her lover, a human scholar. Chih knows the human version of this tale. The tigers, however, are determined to set the record straight. Sinh Loan, the most terrifying of their captors, asks Chih to talk – and if the tigers don’t hear a story they like, the night might very well end in tooth and claw.
When you love a thing too much, it is a special kind of pain to show it to others and to see that it is lacking.When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
Much like the first book in this cycle, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is a story about stories – in this case, about which version of a story gets told, and what gets lost along the way. It is not too much of a spoiler to say that Chih’s version of the tale and the tiger’s version are quite different, but the specific ways in which they are different are revealing and thought-provoking. I was reminded slightly of Roshomon; like Kurosawa’s classic, When the Tiger… is about the ways in which we twist and turn the truth to suit our ends.
But it’s also about what gets left out in state narratives and histories – and as the tiger tells her version, one gets the sense that even if it’s not more true, it’s more truthful. It gets closer to the truth in spirit than the tale Chih knows, adding passion, love, and genuine affection where Chih’s tale lacks them almost entirely. It’s a messier tale, and the messiness, it turns out, is the point.
If I have any problem with this short novella, it’s that it ends rather abruptly – not quite as abruptly as another recent read of mine, but I was hoping for a bit more. Still, it’s an absorbing fable, featuring mammoths, talking tigers, sapphic romance, tender and terrible love, and a cleric who’s very curious about a cat. If you enjoyed the first novella in this cycle, reading this one is a no-brainer.
Next Time: The Mask of Mirrors, by M.A. Carrick