Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris. She has won three Nebula Awards, a Locus Award, a British Fantasy Award and four British Science Fiction Association Awards, and was a double Hugo finalist for 2019 (Best Series and Best Novella). A highly versatile author as at home writing space opera murder investigations as she is fantasy of manners, Aliette’s most recent book is Fireheart Tiger (published by Tor.com), a sapphic romantic fantasy inspired by pre colonial Vietnam, where a diplomat princess must decide the fate of her country, and her own. I got to chat with her about it…
JLW: Aside from occasional flashbacks Fireheart Tiger all takes place in one setting: the palace at Binh Hai, particularly its garden pavilion. We’re not seeing great armies and fleets but rather the hands that move them. Was it your intention to keep things to one setting or is it that novellas by their very nature lean toward a smaller canvas? Do you particularly enjoy writing on that scale?
Aliette: Fireheart Tiger is primarily following in the tradition of Vietnamese and Chinese court drama, which tend to follow that mould: they’re generally very tightly focused on a few people and a few locations–I think of them as a family drama where the family happens to be the ruling one. I really enjoy writing on that scale because it makes it comprehensible to me, especially at novella length. If I had to deal with the larger canvas and the myriad factions, social classes and people involved, I think it would no longer be a novella that short.
There’s something really soothing about putting ink down on paper and seeing it glisten…
I noticed a boardgame theme throughout the story. There’s a game of chess between mother and daughter, handmaids playing mah-jongg and the protagonist, Thanh, refers to herself as a pawn at one point. Plus any diplomatic encounter between two nations has inherently chess-like qualities. Was that a theme that emerged as you wrote? Do you play many boardgames yourself?
I do play many board games myself, but I didn’t intend the board game theme. I guess it just happened straight from my subsconscious: I tend to have people play boardgames when they need a distraction, and mạt chược/mahjong is a game that fairly naturally occurs to me, mainly because I’ve seen so many movies where people play it–though in reality I guess that elephant chess, the one Thanh plays in the novel, is the one that is the more frequently played.
Anyone who follows your social media knows you have a love for fountain pens. Do you use them much in your writing process? The note taking stages or first draft maybe?
I use fountain pens a lot! There’s something really soothing about putting ink down on paper and seeing it glisten, and I also think having another medium that’s not the Word document helps shift my brain into a different mindset. I use them extensively when brainstorming: I have a dedicated writing notebook for brainstorming, where I take notes and try to work out various worldbuilding, plot and character issues. I also use the notebook when drafting: it’s a braindump of things I’m finding a problem or am trying to sort out in the context of writing the draft.
This book is in many ways my “what if things had been better”, a way of rewriting the inexorable march of history.
To go back to Fireheart Tiger I’ve something of a history nerd question. The tale is set in a fantasy world inspired by pre-colonial Nguyễn dynasty Vietnam so, by extension, are any of the characters inspired by figures of the era (I’ve a pet theory Thanh’s mother is a gender-swapped version of Emperor Minh Mang) or is that just not how you’d go about creating characters?
I suppose she does end up having a lot of common points with Minh Mạng! Again, I didn’t end up doing this consciously, but one way I do my writing is researching extensively and letting it all be soaked up by the subconscious. So I can definitely see the scenario where my brain threw in bits and pieces of Minh Mạng while I was writing. From the precolonial history, I mostly took the setup of a small and beleaguered country that had already known several waves of colonisation and was now dealing with a different one: they could recognise the playbook but could not defeat it. It’s not quite what happened in history: in practise, the Nguyễn emperors were too busy dealing with in-factions, burying their heads in the sand or doing other things, but this book is in many ways my “what if things had been better”, a way of rewriting the inexorable march of history.
Do you think you’ll be going back to Thanh or her world? The peek we readers get into the politics and cultures and elemental powers of Fireheart is very enticing.
I don’t really know, to be honest as that rather depends on my publisher’s willingness to do a sequel! I was very interested in dealing with Linh, Thanh’s elder sister, and her meeting either a kỳ lân (a horned beast who announces the passing of a wise ruler) or a phượng hoàng (the king of the birds, who symbolises femininity and is the counterpart of the male dragon).
That sounds wonderful! I hope to read it one day. Thanks for talking today, Aliette.
Fireheart Tiger is available to buy HERE