On the heels of her victory at the end of Amélie Wen Zhao’s YA fantasy Blood Heir, the empress Morganya is terrorizing the nation of Cyrilia. Swearing vengeance on behalf of the persecuted Affinites, bearers of magical elements from flesh to fire, she’s using the full force of the law to crack down on any suspected of illicit Affinite trafficking––with or without proof.
The power struggle between her and Blood Heir’s lead, the blood Affinite and exiled princess Anastacya, remains the series’ long-term thrust, but in Red Tigress, Zhao sets her sights on promising new shores. The center-stage conflicts in this second volume expand the scope of Blood Heir’s world, put the complicity of nations beyond Cyrilia under scrutiny, and make what is, on paper, a detour, feel anything but.
At curtain, Anastacya, or Ana, is in search of allies in the crumbling city of Novo Mynsk. With her is the young criminal mastermind Ramson Quicktongue, whose shady past and unsavory connections make for a massive liability in any bid for the throne––but are, as in book one, excellent reading material. These two playing off of each other as a duo did wonders for Blood Heir, a first installment that very much felt like their book, but Red Tigress aims broad in more ways than one, and, along with an expanded world, Zhao serves us an expanded cast.
Now, additional points of view often clutter a second book, but she incorporates them very shrewdly, their use like cutaways in a screenplay: pacing-sensitive, reserved for necessity, and, occasionally, only visiting a certain character once. It doesn’t snatch the reins from Ana and Ramson by any means, but it does make way for Red Tigress to nail the side character category, especially where it concerns the characters whose heads we visit most often in Zhao’s narration: Ana and Ramson, as before, along with Linn, a wind Affinite and survivor of trafficking, and Kaïs, a defector from the royal guard.
Save for the villains (more on that later), Red Tigress is so effective with its supporting players because, much in the same way that Zhao’s worldbuilding goes straight to the principles and flaws at the heart of a culture, her character work prioritizes the dilemmas that animate people’s lives. Will Ana take her birthright or reconsider the institution of the crown altogether? Will Ramson let himself love, or keep his heart closely guarded? Will Linn protect herself, or return to the fight to free other Affinites and risk meeting old demons? Will Kaïs forfeit principle for the safety of his family, or risk his family for the sake of principle?
These dilemmas would certainly be visible from the outside (and for other players whose perspectives we don’t get, they very much are), but it’s Red Tigress’ willingness to let Ana take a few steps back as a protagonist that really lets them shine, though the ease with which Zhao’s prose takes on new voices certainly doesn’t hurt.
As a tool of worldbuilding, too, the group-piece leanings of Red Tigress work like a dream. Ramson’s spoiler-y connections to the government of Bregon, a military-minded island nation to Cyrilia’s west, flesh out more than just the nice visuals. Through him, Zhao grasps the intricacies of policy with the judgement of an insider: Bregon’s a constitutional monarchy that pretends to be “above” absolute royal rule while stumbling into the trap of military dictatorship, and the intrigue of these two institutions in conflict fuels much of the book’s best suspense.
But through Ana, Linn, and Kaïs, Zhao considers the failures of a nation that claims to embrace Affinites by giving them positions of rank and the appearance of equality…while also looking the other way as their captors traffic them through Bregonian ports. All four perspectives are crucial to the setting at hand, and, in establishing it, none are wasted.
It’s this, coupled with how she explores Kemeira through Linn’s memories, that makes Red Tigress a more complete rendering of what Blood Heir was trying to accomplish. This story really works as a group piece, and its plot really moves when it spans further than Cyrilia’s borders. But some weaknesses carry over, and they’re deeply hostile to the book’s last 100 pages: the villains are frustratingly one-note and unsympathetic, and the climactic confrontations are an almost-total fumble.
While there’s some use for a couple of Red Tigress’ minor antagonists as character foils for the main four, all of the villains crumble when considered on their own. Morganya, as her introduction in this review might suggest, is too wicked-witch to give her cause weight against Ana’s, a strange and wasteful choice for a villain designed with such an ostensibly noble goal. The Admiral of Bregon’s navy, also, is too much monster and not enough man. Yet another villain whose identity it is a spoiler to reveal is a flavor of pathetic-evil taken to an overdone extreme. Ultimately, all these baddies read like the book is afraid of us possibly taking their side––so instead of substance to latch onto, we get slippery, unapproachable archetype.
And, in fact, this unfortunate crowd is to blame for the climax, too, because when the focus is on the political scaffolding, Zhao juggles conflicts just fine, but when Red Tigress defaults to a bombastic clash of wills, what should be the most emotionally-charged scene is instead the one with the least at stake…because only half of its combatants are even remotely interesting to watch.
That said, the book’s earlier investments make hanging on through the climax worth it. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Red Tigress isn’t at all about the fight between hero and villain, but it has enough going for it outside that aspect that it’s best taken as a work with other goals in mind. For my part, those goals, and Zhao’s success with them, are enough to keep me reading on to book 3.
Thank you so much for reading! Have you read Red Tigress and/or Blood Heir? What did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts, in the comments below 💕