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December 10, 2020

Two Fantasy Novellas for Busy Readers

by MK French

Today I have reviews of two fantasy novellas. Novellas are great for busy readers (and who isn't busy this time of year?). They usually have more story and character depth than a short story but are still quick reads. Both novellas are in the subgenre of mythology or folklore. The first novella,which came out this week, is focused on Asian culture. I felt the second novella, which published this year, has a really good message.
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When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
December 2020;; 978-1250786135
audio, ebook, print (126 pages); Asian fantasy
Chih and their companions are stuck at the top of the mountain, surrounded by hungry tigers. Mammoths will come to save them, but they will have to stay alive until then. In order to do so, Chih will have to unravel the mystery of the tiger and her scholar lover, and how truth can survive.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is a follow up to The Empress of Salt and Fortune, which I hadn't read. This is a standalone novel in that same world, so I suppose that readers of the first novel are already familiar with the location Chih is in when the book opens.  For the rest of us, we're given the description of the snowy, mountainous region as Chih collects stories and details about the Singing Hills region. This is what gives the series its name as the Singing Hills Cycle. Reviews of the first novel explain that it was framed as a story that the Empress' handmaiden tells the cleric, so we don't miss anything by starting the series here. I suspect at some point when my TBR pile is less overwhelming, I'm going to track down the first volume to read.

Chih, the gender-neutral cleric, thinks fast when approached by tigers. In this world, heavily based on East Asian mythology (there are Chinese and Vietnamese names mentioned, so it likely takes place somewhere between those two countries), tigers are like other spiritual animals in that they have a human form as well as their animal form. Chih bargains with the tigers, as one of their collected stories is the marriage of Ho Thi Thao, which piques their interest. We have tales back and forth in addition to Ho Thi Thao, as the tigers interrupt Chih, and their companion Si-yu also has additions. This book, short as it is, nevertheless layers meaning and mythology in each conversation, drawing you into its universe as you progress through the story.

Storytelling is a way of linking cultures and people as well as passing the time. Here, Chih uses the story as a way to delay potential slaughter, soothe the tigers, and learn about their people as much as they can correct the histories that they were taught. Even the spirits follow the rules of propriety, both in the story and with Chih and Si-yu, which allows the dialogue to take place and to have the different stories be revealed. This is a very short book, and I was disappointed that there wasn't more to read!

Curse of the Blacknoc Witch by Tori V. Rainn

Curse of the Blacknoc Witch
April 2020; The Wild Rose Press; 978-1509230877
ebook, print (162 pages); fantasy
Becoming a monster in a forest realm hadn’t been part of Samuel’s plans, but the Blacknoc Curse was true after all. Now he’s a monster hunting other cursed children, surrounded by horrors. Layla is tormented by the same curse and is dropped into the same forest every night. Unlike Samuel, her goal is to save all of the children, including him.

When we meet Samuel, he’s been a monster for some time. He’d already decided not to eat the wicked children sent to the forest by the curse, which puts him as an outcast with other monsters. Eating children results in vomiting them back out as monsters, and not eating them just condemns them to return the next night. It’s a small rebellion, and the only one he’s really able to make. Samuel has saved several children before he meets Layla, believing that they all deserve a second chance.

We’re dropped directly into the action, and it goes fast. Some of Samuel’s language feels a bit stilted for an eighteen-year-old. Layla is braver and stronger than the teenager she is at the start of the book and uses the time she has in her real world to research the curse to try to break it. As Samuel protects more children it modifies his curse; later we find out why. Layla finds allies in the real world, but she is largely left to break the curse on her own. Even after that is done, her story isn’t done and neither is Samuel’s. Both have to work at it to completely destroy the curse, and pieces of it are only revealed at a time.

It feels like the try/fail cycle advice often given for plotting was really at work here. The novella is stretched out when there are gaps of years in between some of those cycles. To me, it felt like the story could’ve been written as a duology, with the teenage section as one book and the adult section as a separate one, or a Part I and Part II separator in place to really emphasize that they’re two parts of a same larger story. I do like the message in it, that acceptance of wrongdoing that allows people to move forward, and that people working together make the most good. That’s definitely a message worth hanging onto.

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever.

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