When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, by Nghi Vo
In March of 2020, Nghi Vo wrote an imaginative fantasy novella, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, which kicked off her debut series, The Singing Hills Cycle. This slim work garnered many awards and landed on numerous “best of” lists, incorporating the feel of Asian period drama, and centering around the power of storytelling and women’s voices.
The series continues with When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, published in December. Once again, the vehicle for the tale is cleric Chih, who is tasked with documenting stories – and therefore history – for the Singing Hill abbey. This time, though, Chih must use their storytelling acumen to stave off danger in the form of three hungry tigers.
Chih has employed the services of young scout Si-yu and her mammoth, Piluk, to transport them through a northern passage before storms hit. But at the waystation halfway there, they are beset by a trio of tigers (who first present as women), who have already taken down the guard stationed there. Were it not for Piluk – who even for a young mammoth, is still intimidating to tigers – all would have been lost. But with quick thinking and astute riding skills, Chih and Si-yu are able to grab the unconscious man and take refuge in a small, open barn while the tigers – three sisters – languish just outside, waiting for opportunity – or increasing hunger – to overtake the travelers.
To keep the tigers engaged and docile, Chih barters their survival for a night of storytelling. The tigers do not agree to the freedom but do acquiesce to listening to their offered story of the marriage of Ho Thi Thao, the fiercest tigresses of all, to the human scholar Dieu. The night is spent with Chih relating the story as humans know it, and the chiding of Ho Sinh Loan, the elder tiger sister, as she condescendingly corrects the cleric, occasionally deigning to share the true story as tigers know it, demanding that they make a note of it in their journal, “so that they will find it after we eat you.”
This amazing small volume is episodic storytelling at its best; spare yet lush, imaginative yet based in folklore and reminiscent of epics such as One Thousand and One Nights. The legend of Ho Thi Thao – both human and tiger versions – is expansive, but it is the small details that surround the three tigers, the cleric, the scout (and even the mammoth!) that truly make this novella shine. As Jake Casella Brookins says in the Chicago Review of Books: “One of the many points of brilliance in When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is the space and voice Vo gives to the non-human, in how she lets them be tiger enough. Yes, they talk, may walk upright for now, but, like Waterson’s Hobbes, they never hesitate to remind us that humans’ real purpose is to be tiger-food; the tigers voices’ ripple with fierce and catlike hunger, arrogance, and territoriality. The centrality and authenticity of that non-human reality anchors the fantastic elements of the world, from mammoths to fox spirits.”
I found this second novella to be even more engaging than The Empress of Salt and Fortune; more personal, more dangerous, more immediate. Both, though, are unique and precious in this time of worldbuilding on a grand scale; Vo’s stories are contained in the throw of a campfire’s light rather than the brilliance of a thousand suns. But they shine as brightly, as good stories always do.
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is listed as “Volume 2 of 2” in the Singing Hills Cycle; I hope that Nghi Vo changes her mind and continues with the journeys of Chih and their storytelling. I, for one, am not ready to be finished with them yet.