I first heard about When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain from a Twitter post, which sold it as “scholar/apex predator slow-burn sapphic courtship” and “the inherent homoeroticism of reading poetry out loud.” To be totally honest, if those two phrases sell you on the book, you may just want to go read it; it’s certainly worth the price of admission.
A sequel to Nghi Vo’s also fantastic Empress of Salt and Fortune, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is a story about oral history and mythmaking; about what gets lost in the retelling, both through time and also in the intended audience.
The story bounces between three narratives — the present day where Chih, a cleric who collects histories, is attempting to not be eaten by three shapeshifting tiger women, and the two versions of the story that Chih is telling. The meat of the Where the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is in how the story is changed by who tells it. The tigers are predators, they are not shy about their desire nor their plan to eat Chih and their traveling companions, and their story reflects that. Creatures are ripped apart, the tiger is won over by violence and lust, and her primary motivation throughout the end is heartbreak and hunger. The humanized version of the story is full of poetry and amounts to a scholarly woman winning over the beast through words. It is less compelling in the ways that it is less bloody, though the poetry is quite lovely.
It’s also one of only three books I’ve read this year to heavily feature a nonbinary character, and one of the other two was its’ series predecessor. Considering the lack of representation in that area, it’s nice to see it here, and especially with a character who is as interesting to read about as Chih — our cleric lead. While the tale itself is the star of the show, the little bits and details we get about their life are enough to create a dynamic character and show Vo’s ability to impart quite a bit in just a few words.
The only real detriment to When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is that it ended, and I was ready to pick up with Chih and go and hear another tale. The books in the Singing Hills Cycle are compelling and character driven, leaving me aching for more, but satisfied still at the conclusion. It’s a heady combination.
If you are interested, you can buy When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain from Bookshop. This is an affiliate link.