“The novelty wore off, but the wonder didn’t…”
This paragraph opening on page 11 of the July 2021 #sfnovellaofthe month, Nghi Vo’s When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (2020, Tordotcom Publishing) describes its protagonist’s experience during a ride up a mountain on the back of a mammoth bedecked with iron bells. It equally describes the way this protagonist—a cleric named Chih who belongs to a monastic order concerned with the collection of stories—feels throughout the book. Chih’s open-eyed, open-minded, and open-hearted perspective, i.e., the perspective of someone whose work of collecting stories has inadvertently made them the stuff of stories in their own right, provides readers with a welcoming viewpoint from which to take in both Chih’s story and the story they must tell—correctly—to avoid being eaten by tigers.
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, is, of course, a book about tigers. It is also a book about travellers, scholars, lovers, listeners, purpose, betrayal, and forgiveness. Above all, though, this book is concerned with stories. To whom do stories belong? How can a storyteller know that the version of a story they are telling is true? When a story is the product of more than one culture, how can a version told by only one of those cultures reflect the truth of the other? These questions, and more, are raised by the tigers’ frequent interruptions to point out where Chih’s rendition of the story is, by tiger standards, incorrect, unfair, or wrong.
There are many things to love about this novella. Its language is elegant, its settings vivid, its characters spirited and engaging. Its brevity belies the complexity of its themes, but does not cheat them of due consideration. It is a book that will reward readers who return to it more than once.
Delightfully, this novella is part of a cycle—along with The Empress of Salt and Fortune, the forthcoming Into the Riverlands, and two further novellas not yet publicly named—of books featuring Chih. While When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain was published second, the books in the cycle can be read in any order. It seems appropriate, and in keeping with Vo’s complex and subtle ideas about stories and storytelling, that these stories not be locked into serial order.
I received a digital copy of this book for free, as Tor.com’s eBook of the Month Club selection for May 2021. I suspect I will snap up the other volumes in the Singing Hills Cycle as soon as possible—and will very much look forward to reading Nghi Vo’s full-length novels.