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.
Aasterful in its ability to step back, to allow the fairytale stay in its frame, at a bit of a distance from the immediate action. That refusal to humanize more than warranted works hand in hand with the space that Vo gives for the non-human—even when it walks and talks a bit like a person ... As a piece of fantasy literature, Vo’s worldbuilding is a command performance, if a subdued one. The material reality of the story’s present feels incredibly strong, from the stitching on Si-Yu’s boot to the brief sketches of geopolitics and history. What’s truly impressive is the way Vo weds this firm reality with fantasy and fairy tale ... The novella is rather a meditation on versions of stories, shadings and retellings, the importance of the teller’s intent and insight—and it never dismisses even the most fantastic ideas as 'just a story.' The novella is also notable for its quiet subversion of gender norms. Ho Thi Tao and Dieu’s story is a love story about two women, though not both human; Chih is non-binary, and these facts pass without comment or judgment. The novella is particularly rich in the polysemy of feeding: as a clear metaphor for sex, as a simple fulfilmment of need, and as violence.
Si-yu doesn’t tell her own long-winded stories, but what she says, coupled with Chih’s internal addendums, fill out more of the vast history of Ahn. But it’s not just the nation whose stories are revised. For the reader, Chih is our only example of a monk, but as Si-yu points out, they aren’t the ideal model. Life on the road has forced Chih to compromise on the rules and regulations. Their own story is full of revisions and edits and cuts ... the novella grows, the pieces coming together to create both an intimate portrait of a tigress and her human lover and a hazy landscape of life in Ahn ... Ultimately, there is no 'truth' and there is no 'fiction;' there is only truth as fiction and fiction as truth ... The Singing Hills Cycle isn’t just free of Eurocentric constraints, but actively pushes against them. Queerness – in sexual, romantic, and gender identity – exists by not existing. By that I mean that there is no cishet versus queer. People are people. They express themselves in whatever way best suits them and their needs. No one comments on two women being lovers anymore than they would a woman and a man. Chih is nonbinary, but it isn’t a plot point or topic of conversation. No one hems and haws over grammar or intentionally misgenders them. That’s not to say Ahn is free of bigotry and prejudice, but it’s so refreshing to have a world in which the white cishet patriarchy isn’t the default. A nearly perfect example of a novella done well, where the author truly gets the medium, how to work within its structure while also expanding beyond its limits.
Vo opts for the story within a story format, which I personally find to be one of the aspects that makes these novellas so fascinating! At the tiger’s command, Chih goes on to recount the love story of the scholar Dieu and the tiger Ho Thi Thao as recorded in the Singing Hill archives. However, the tigers keep interrupting Chih to tell the tale as they know it, which turns out to be quite different from the human narrative. As the tigers insist their version of Ho Thi Thao’s legend is the real history, and the humans got it wrong, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain skilfully explores how there can be so many different interpretations of a narrative, and how only the victor’s side of a story is what history keeps account of ... just the right mix of elegant, enchanting, and whimsical. Vo’s exploration of queer love in this book is achingly beautiful; and her worldbuilding is lush and detailed this time around as well as she takes us to a completely different side of Chih’s world.