The trope of the teenaged girl who is the best at everything she does is often– and usually justly– derided in science fiction and fantasy. While these stories often act as wish fulfillment for both writer and reader, it makes for a boring character when they have nothing to learn in the long run. If the Mary Sue character is already the best and already beloved, what chance do they have to grow and change? In her debut novel, The Tiger’s Daughter, K Arsenault Rivera walks a fine line between the dreaded Mary Sue and a dynamic character who is skilled but suffers from profound flaws.
O-Shizuka is the sole heir to the degenerate Hokkaran empire. Her uncle, the emperor, is a vainglorious man who consistently denies the problems within his realm. Instead of facing the evil encroaching on the edges of the empire and dealing with the causes of peasant revolts, he hides in his glittering court and devotes himself to pleasure, exiling or executing anyone who speaks against him. O-Shizuka, on the other hand, has spent time outside the empire– with her best friend, the Qorin girl Shefali. Though vain and prideful, O-Shizuka sees her incredible gifts and skills as god-given and intends to fight evil where she sees it, whether it comes from marauding bandits, leering courtiers, or demons. Why else would she be the finest swordsman in the empire?
Shefali, on the other hand, is skilled with a bow though she sees this as part of her upbringing. The Qorin are nomadic wanderers of the vast silver steppes, and if they can’t shoot straight, they risk starving. As the daughter of the warrior-woman who united the disparate Qorin tribes, Shefali is devoted to the cause of unity and peace, and while she is less driven to hunt down evil than O-Shizuka, her skills at destroying it are a match for her friend and lover’s.
But O-Shizuka’s pride and zealotry have their consequences, and while she means well, her drive may propel her and Shefali into disaster.
“If I had stolen a prayer tag from a temple and sent it to you, it would’ve been less sacrilegious. When you pressed it to your nose, what did you smell? For my people believe the soul of a person is in their scent, in their hair. On the mountain, there are dozens of banners made from the mane of Kharsaqs, Kharsas, and their horses. The wind whips through them and carries their souls forever across the great plains. One day I will take you to the mountain and you shall see them, all lined up, all swaying like dancers, and you will think of the flower I gave you when we were children.”
The majority of the story is told in a second-person perspective, as a book of letters written by Shefali to O-Shizuka, an explanation of what drove Shefali to do all the things she did from childhood until they were separated at teenagers. Both women are adults when the book begins, and so Shefali’s recollections are shaped by a wiser perspective. She is able to look back at her childhood self and explain why she was so keen to follow O-Shizuka wherever she went and into whatever trouble they found, why she left O-Shizuka after a traumatic experience, and why she sent O-Shizuka a single flower from the place most sacred to the Qorin.
While second-person perspective is the least used in literature– it’s strange for a reader to find themselves addressed by characters in a book– the framing story makes the perspective less strange. Soon enough, it feels perfectly normal, because the reader knows the story is addressed to O-Shizuka. There are breaks in the story, when the perspective shifts back to third-person, detailing what O-Shizuka is doing in the present and her reactions to the letters. These act as a grounding force to emphasize the nature of the letters, as well as reminding O-Shizuka of the love she and Shefali once shared– and still might share– making O-Shizuka’s reaction at the end of the story all the more believable.
Though it is a debut novel, The Tiger’s Daughter marks K Arsenault Rivera as a rare talent, gifted with the ability to examine and understand her characters through and through, giving them great skills as well as great flaws. This makes them realistic and relatable, even if Shefali’s reticence or O-Shizuka’s pride makes them exasperating now and then. Rivera’s exquisite writing and firm grasp upon her story makes The Tiger’s Daughter a compelling read for all fantasy fans.