RogerBW's Blog

The Tiger's Daughter, K. Arsenault Rivera 18 September 2020

2017 fantasy romance, first of its series. The Hokkaran Empire rules practically everyone, including the Qorin horse nomads whom it conquered half a generation ago. But plagues and demons are rising, and two young warriors will have to save the world.

There's a lot to love here. This is fantasy that isn't afraid to be mythic; one of the protagonists literally never misses a shot with her bow. There are demons that are more interesting than mere tempters or threats. There are two people whose love for each other will clearly conquer all. And they're both women. This is good stuff.

But the vast majority of the book is a letter from one of them to the other, recounting events at which they were both present and which they both remember. There is no diegetic reason for this letter to exist. It would have been entirely possible to strip off the few chapters of framing narrative, put them at the end, and not lose any of the tension of the book; indeed, some might be gained. The pace is very slow; it's nearly half-way through that one of them says "we walk into the first chapter of our lives. Together." and by that point I was thinking "here is where the story really starts?"

All right, that is balanced somewhat by the sense of energy and fun. And by their mothers being the previous generation of great warriors while their fathers are poets and courtiers. But then there's the complete lack of appreciation that the downside of having an absolute ruler is significantly higher than the upside, for all a Terrible Example is ready to hand; and most of all, there's the cultural appropriation. All right, this is a Japanese-flavoured fantasy, and the author is not at all Japanese (though on her web site she does say that she enjoys Revolutionary Girl Utena); I don't think that's intrinsically a problem. The difficulty for me is that it's too obviously an easy trick; you change "Hokkaido" to "Hokkaro", the "-san" honorific to "-sun", "kumiss" to "kumaq" for the not-Mongolian Qorin, and so on. This isn't building a fantasy world; it's stealing cultures wholesale, except that whenever you get a detail wrong or change something that's inconvenient you can say "oh, no, it's different here because it's fantasy".

Look, it's not my culture that's being spread out here as something exotic and strange to gawp at, but it is a recognisable culture that real people come from. Our heroine rejects the naginata (not renamed) in favour of the sword because the naginata is a "weapon of cowards", and even I know better than that; it's a bloody dangerous weapon, optimised for someone with less upper body strength than the people she's likely to be fighting. Reject it if you like, but not for that reason. These not-Japanese slavishly imitate the fashions and music of not-Chinese they've conquered, and unpacking that

Also I don't think Asian people typically refer to themselves as having a "wide, flat face".

This kind of thing might just about have been acceptable in the 1980s when research was harder to do, both for authors and for readers, because you actually had to go out and meet people who knew about a foreign culture, and writers were getting away with all sorts of xenophobic exoticising rubbish about Japan in particular (see also much of cyberpunk). We are not in the 1980s. This feels like what you get from the person who spends two weeks in Japan or reads one book and comes back an "expert" in the culture and history. If Rivera had put a bit more effort into the world-building and come up with a less derivative setting rather than delving into the Big Book of Asian Cliché I could have put up with the rest of the problems because of the good stuff, which is sometimes very good indeed. As it is the whole thing tastes of ash and I'm very unlikely to continue with this series.

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  1. Posted by J Michael Cule at 12:08pm on 18 September 2020

    Roger, your Amazon link goes to a book called BARBARY STATION.

    And one of these days I'm going to have to figure out how I feel about cultural appropriation. One is British after all and we are the Borg.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:17pm on 18 September 2020

    Fixed the link; thanks.

    This isn't as bad as it might have been; there's no culture that exists purely to be The Bad Guys. But it left me feeling desperately uncomfortable.

  3. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 02:06pm on 18 September 2020

    Mike nailed it. We are the Borg. Actually, all of humanity are the Borg.

    Your discomfort comes from the cognitive dissonance that comes from tribalism.

    One side of the tribal coin: My tribe is cultured, and its works are superior to all other inferior tribes.

    The other side of the coin: how dare you barbarians steal my tribes sacred culture and sully it with your cooties.

    All cultures steal what works for them from other cultures. There's is no such thing as pure culture.

    Cultural appropriation, along with ingesting mind altering substances, are a fundamental part of the human condition.

    A feature, not a bug.

  4. Posted by J Michael Cule at 10:50pm on 18 September 2020

    I refer the Right Honourable Members to the BALLAD OF WE AND THEY by that there Mr Kipling, a cultural appropriator of the first water.

    I haven't ingested any mind altering substances in months mostly because I don't want to start drinking alone.

  5. Posted by Chris at 09:50am on 19 September 2020

    As I understand it, if the Sami adopt and adapt Russian or Swedish habits or housing or garb, that is adaption to circumstances; if a Russian or a Swede adopts and adapts Sami habits or housing or garb, that is cultural appropriation. Similarly, if a man in the Democratic Republic of Congo wears jeans that is common sense, but if a woman in New York wears a variant of Congalese female garb that is cultural appropriation. I think cultural appropriation only works if the cultural item being adopted and adapted originates in a culture which feels at a disadvantage in some way, perhaps?

    Is it cultural appropriation for an American to wear tartan?

  6. Posted by Gus at 05:12pm on 19 September 2020

    The, or a, more dominant culture adopting trappings of another without their concomitant disadvantages is one reason people (or peoples) get a bit cross about it, yes.

    Is it cultural appropriation for an American to wear tartan? There are grounds on which the practice should be discouraged, I feel, of which CA is possibly the least important...

  7. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 08:53pm on 19 September 2020

    People who rage about cultural appropriation are those who lack an understanding of mankind's history.

    Americans wear tartan if they want. I can wear a kimono, or hakama if I want. They're just items of apparel.

  8. Posted by RogerBW at 09:07pm on 19 September 2020

    Ashley, you tend to write as though your opinion were the only valid viewpoint. This in itself will annoy people, no matter how good your ideas. (You may be doing this deliberately of course.)

    I know a little bit about feudal-era Japanese culture. I've run RPGs heavily influenced by it. This book felt wrong measured against that, and against my own enjoyment of anime. For me, it's too facile, too pat, too "look how clever I am for using search and replace".

  9. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 03:29pm on 20 September 2020

    Ah, I'm such a scallywag, playing Devils advocate. I'll be clearer.

    To me, your review about katana versus naginata reads the same way as gun enthusiasts lamenting writers idiots for calling magazines clips, and or not knowing the difference between a revolver and a semiautomatic pistol.

    Which is fine, but I found the argument muddled. What are you trying to say?

    If its that cultural appropriation is lazy world building that's one thing. Then one can compare the lazy world building here to any number of other authors fantasy novels.

    It is what it is.

    If on the other hand, you're using this to set an agenda then the assumption that cultural appropriation is bad is fine, but it is just an opinion about a piece of fiction that is ultimately disposable.

    Such conversations led no where good. As is amply demonstrated in this thread.

  10. Posted by RogerBW at 07:15pm on 20 September 2020

    I think that what you describe as two separate arguments is, in my head, really the result of one problem with two lobes that reinforce each other.

    If the writing had been much better I should have minded the cultural appropriation rather less. As I said in the review, I'm not normally a person who notices or cares about this stuff; I think that if a non-Asian person were to write a superbly good novel set in Asian or near-Asian cultures I'd be quite happy with that. (I haven't read it for quite a few years, but I have positive memories of Cherryh's The Paladin for example, which is similarly set in a not-really-Japan-honest – though if I recall correctly that has the advantage of not dealing with its empire's relationships with other cultures.)

    Looked at from the other side, if I hadn't already been irked by the clumsy world-building (of which the cultural appropriation is just one part) I should have minded the clumsy writing and plotting rather less.

    From a third side, I don't like stereotypes of cultures (which is the inevitable effect of a shallow portrayal), and this book has lots of them.

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