When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo
for a winner of a short story, for masterful story-within-a-story framing, for a story told around a campfire that makes you feel like you’re there every step
The cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover—a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty—and discover how truth can survive becoming history.
Nghi Vo returns to the empire of Ahn and The Singing Hills Cycle in this mesmerizing, lush standalone follow-up to The Empress of Salt and Fortune.
It’s been a little while since I read Vo’s first Singing Hills book, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, and while I enjoyed that one, I think this one was my favorite of the two. This story within a story is so well done that it never feels tedious or tangled, and even though ultimately you are actually reading three stories — Chih at the campfire, Chih’s version of Dieu’s travels, and the tigers’ version of Ho Thi Thao’s marriage.
All three stories are compelling, and there was never a moment where I was less interested in the current one. That’s a common issue for me with dual narrative stories, but not here. Each story has vibrancy and a feeling of life and history and things yet to come. It’s incredible in such a short span of pages, and without an overabundance of description. The story is woven in the way they talk and act and think, and not just in what they are truly saying.
The lore of the tigers is nuanced and exciting. I love that nothing is explained to the reader directly, or apologized for, it just is the way things are and you are expected to listen politely (much as Chih does) to find your way as a member in this world. If you are confused, simply be patient and pay attention, and the answers will come your way. It’s a surprisingly calm feeling, considering they are at risk of being eaten by tigers the entire way through. All characters remain true to themselves, though, and that’s a key part in believability of it all. Si-yu, for example, is constantly showing Chih the power and danger of being a generational member of the mammoth corps. I doubt we will see Si-yu again, but boy did I enjoy journeying with her.