The Night Tiger
(Flatiron Books, 2019) is much more than just a fantasy novel—it’s also a mystery, a historical novel, and a love story. Yang-Sze Choo
accomplishes all this in one deft package. Set in Malaysia in the 1930s, in the state of Perak, The Night Tiger closely follows three narrators, mysteriously interlinked by their names. There is a clever orphan named Ren who works as a houseboy, a spunky and funny young beauty, Ji Lin, and a British surgeon, William Acton.
Though the novel is grounded in mundane concerns, such as Ji Lin’s effort to pay back her mother’s gambling debt before her step-father discovers it, there are also numinous aspects, such as the waking-dream states that Ji-Lin and Ren enter, during which they communicate with Ren’s dead brother. Even as Ji Lin tried to cope with the restricted options available to a woman of that time period, and surgeon William Acton grapples with his lusty urges, a shimmer of the supernatural imbues the narrative, and a sense of transcendent beauty weaves its way through the chapters.
One of the supernatural aspects concerns were-tigers. Ren’s former master, a colleague of the surgeon William Acton, has recently died. Before his passing, he implored Ren, his loyal houseboy, to locate his missing finger. It seems if he is buried without it, his spirit will roam as a were-tiger. Ren has only forty-nine days during which he can bury the finger with the corpse; should he not suceed, the spirit of his former master will never find peace.
The book opens as Ji-Lin has discovers the missing finger in her pocket, as a result of a chance encounter with a salesman. She is unaware of its significance but would like nothing better than to be rid of this macabre item. Through a series of events, Ji-Lin and Ren meet, exchange stories, and befriend each other. Their fates are linked through ancient Confucian tradition with other characters. Ji-Lin, Ren, and William Acton all have names which denote Confucian virtues; there is also Ji-Lin’s alluring step-brother, whose motivation for helping Ji-Lin is shrouded, and Ren’s dead brother, Yi. One of the five is deeply flawed and may bring doom onto the rest.
Yang-sze’s characters are engrossing, beckoning you into look deep into their psyches, and the setting of colonial Malaysia is a refreshing change to Eurocentric fantasy literature.
Gabrielle Mathieu is the author of the historical fantasy Falcon series and the upcoming epic fantasy,
Girl of Fire. She blogs about travel and her books at http://gabriellemathieu.com/. You can also follow her on Twitter to get updates about new podcasts and more @GabrielleAuthor.