REVIEW: When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (The Singing Hills Cycle Book 2) by Nghi Vo
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.
Nghi Vo returns to the empire of Ahn and The Singing Hills Cycle in When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, a mesmerizing, lush standalone follow-up to The Empress of Salt and Fortune.
Dear Nghi Vo,
Wow. Just wow. I really liked “The Empress of Salt and Fortune” but this novella blew me away. I’m only sorry, like cleric Chih, that Almost Brilliant is sitting on a clutch of eggs and couldn’t be there to add her avian two cents to the telling of the cleric’s tale and to how events fell out with the hungry tigers and angry mammoths.
Though cleric Chih returns from the first story, this truly is a standalone and newbies to this world of Singing Hills (the monastery where clerics learn to gather, record and archive history) can easily start here. It’s a wonderful and inventive place where not only birds but also tigers talk – though I believe I’d rather hear Almost Brilliant’s snark to sitting all night trading alternate versions of a story with three hungry tigers who are already peeved even before they hear the butchered version of the tale cleric Chih relates.
Like Scheherazade spinning stories to stay alive for one more night, Chih must also use storytelling to save not only their own life but also that of the young mammoth scout and her injured relative. The tigers have graciously announced that they will let the mammoth go in the morning as long as Piluk doesn’t attempt to fight them or defend her scout. Luckily Chih knows a little about how to interact with tigers: be polite in order to prove to them that you are a civilized being and must be treated as such and don’t smile as your teeth can never match theirs.
So Chih starts to tell the story they’ve learned to a very critical audience who knows the tiger version and are not best pleased with the way the humans have mangled it. Chih puts on their very best open face – the one they were taught at the monastery to use when gathering information – and politely requests that the tigers relay how they know the story then takes notes so that should they not survive this encounter, perhaps their notes will be taken back allowing both versions to be known. When the sister tigers fuss and disagree at times about the finer points, Chih thinks that this is what footnotes are for.
Yes, there is a great deal of dry humor here as well as a fascinating view of the art of storytelling. With their lives on the line, mammoth scout Si-yu interjects at times to ask questions and make sure things are clarified to her satisfaction before sitting back in attentive listening as all listeners do during long nights as stories are retold.
As Chih and the tigers – mainly the Queen but with some asides from her sisters – tell the story of the poor scholar on her way to take the imperial exams (in the terrifying sounding Hall of Ferocious Jade) when she comes across a fierce tiger who takes a fancy to her, the PsoV switch back and forth depending on who is talking. It’s easy to see how things get muddled and details deleted depending on how important things are to different sides.
I had a feeling that cleric Chih would somehow manage to spin their tale out long enough for salvation to appear but as with the initial encounter with the three tigers, the rousing finale had me riveted. I do hope that there will be further tales of Chih – and hopefully Almost Brilliant plus more mammoths including young Piluk who is rightfully smug about her part in the episode. A-