Author: Annie Sullivan
Release Date: September 10, 2019
Fresh and fiercely feminist, this reimagining of a classic short story delivered the sort of kickass warrior girl action I love to read about.Even better, it belongs to the rare breed of fantasy that takes place in an entirely fictional world but does not rely on magic to make itself unique. But before I get ahead of myself, there’s a bit of explaining I need to do:
I remember the first time I read “The Lady or the Tiger?” back in middle school. It was an interesting read, very short, but also very frustrating. What sort of author,, I asked myself, writes a story without an ending?. (If you’ve already read the story, you can skip the next paragraph.)
For those of you who are not familiar with it, “The Lady or the Tiger?” is a short story about a semi-barbaric king whose system of justice is based around pure chance. Criminals are taken to an arena that has two doors. Behind one door is a beautiful maiden equal to the man’s station; behind the other is a tiger. The man does not know which door is which, but he has to pick one. If he picks the lady, then he is required to marry her. If he picks the tiger…well, it’s a bloody death. One day, the king discovers his daughter (who is also described as semi-barbaric) is having a romantic affair with a man from the palace, which of course is illegal because she’s the princess. The man is taken to the arena as punishment to choose his door. But here’s the twist: the princess is told which door has the lady and which door has the tiger. She knows she can signal to her lover which door to choose. But would she rather send him to a gruesome death? Or to marry another woman, knowing that it would forever mean he can’t be hers? She indicates a door to him. He opens it. And…that’s where the story ends.
At least it was fun to debate with fellow classmates which ending was more likely.
Anyway, I tell you this lengthy anecdote so you know roughly what this novel is riffing on. Fairytale retellings are in vogue right now, but Tiger Queen is based on a slightly lesser-told tale, and not so much a fairytale as a brief meditation on the strength and significance of human emotions.
After that lengthy intro, I’m going to keep this summary brief: if she wants to inherit her father’s kingdom, Princess Kateri must win a series of twelve gladiatorial arena battles. If she loses, the man she loses to will marry her and become king. The kingdom, formerly on an oasis in the middle of the desert, is suffering from a severe drought, made worse by the notorious Desert Boys, who steal more water from the wells than their ration tokens allow. The Desert Boys, led by a boy known as Cion whose swordsmanship is said to be unmatched, also killed Kateri’s mother and baby brother years ago. But when Kateri’s father chooses the despicable Rodric, a cruel and ruthless man—and Kateri’s own trainer—as her final opponent, she puts aside her disgust for the Desert Boys to seek Cion’s help training. Because beating Rodric might be impossible…but marrying him would be the worst fate imaginable.
I was largely a fan of this book, which should surprise nobody. There’s a slow-burn, enemies-to-lovers romance, which is executed incredibly well and is important without overpowering the main narrative, which is that of Kateri’s development. And oh, what great development she gets! At its heart, Kateri’s character arc is one about finding independence and overcoming prejudices. After spending her entire life cooped up in a palace, with very few friends and no real hobbies besides fighting and occasionally reading, Kateri starts the book very emotionally stunted and dependent on others. Her temper is so bad, it is almost embarrassing to read. And while she is skilled with a blade, she is not so adept at navigating social situations. Going out into the desert to join a band of boys she hates on principle, abandoning her life of luxury in hopes of earning her freedom? What better setup is there for her to reconceptualize her privilege and grow to understand what connection really means? Plus, she’s the sort of girl who takes no shit from anyone and will keep attacking any problem until she solves it or she drops dead. In other words, my kind of heroine.
While Kateri herself was great, I also really enjoyed the Desert Boys. Cion is…not what you would expect. In the best way possible; I won’t say more than that. And little Dimic, the seven-year-old lockpick extraordinaire, is adorable and funny and generally just fantastic.
And the setting! Annie Sullivan has built a world complete with its own mythology, justice system (see the two-door choice in the story that inspired this novel), and wildlife, including cactuses that grow spontaneously out of the ground in a matter of seconds. Even the food is unique, consisting largely of snakes and scorpions and lizards and other desert-dwelling creatures. Because of the drought that the kingdom is stuck in, conditions are oppressively hot and dry, with sand that blows everywhere, even inside of houses—even inside the palace. Not going to lie, I was constantly thinking of that Star Wars quote about sand, how it’s irritating and gets everywhere. And the rage of the people fighting for enough water just to survive comes across as a very natural reaction to such a threat to their livelihood.
I only had three gripes, all of them quite small. The first was that not a lot of development is given to the bad guys in this book. I’m not going to explain who they are, because spoilers, but suffice to say we do find out why they do what they do, but only at the most basic level. We never see much expression of complexity from them. Of course, we are seeing them through Kateri’s eyes, which may contribute to that, but it would have been nice to know a little more about possible internal conflicts they may have had, knowing that their actions hurt some while benefiting others. The second is that the epilogue was really odd. I like that it tried to give some idea of the future of the kingdom after the novel’s events, but it felt like an afterthought, just a list of what changes occurred, without the same narrative sense and propulsive writing that filled all the previous pages. It might have been better to just cut it altogether, or replace it with an actual scene instead of basically a series of notes. And the third is…well…why are there no girls in the Desert Boys? Even though Kateri can one-up just about any of them, she is the only girl to actually be a part of the gang. I wonder if some of this has to do with familial expectations for girls versus boys, or something along those lines, but it was a little irritating to see, because there was no good reason for it.
So, while it does have a few small flaws, Tiger Queen was a largely enjoyable read, and I’m rounding a 4.5-star rating up to 5 for Goodreads purposes. Unlike many YA novels today, it isn’t bloated with unnecessary scenes, so it goes quickly and doesn’t drag. Kateri is my favorite sort of female lead, strong both physically and mentally, still figuring herself out but not willing to let anyone make her choices for her. And just like the tigers in the arena, she is hungry—for justice, and for freedom. If you like strong female leads, and even if you don’t usually like fantasy, I would definitely recommend you give this one a go!
Thank you to Blink publishing and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.