The Tiger’s Watch by Julia Ember. ★★★
I wanted to read The Seafarer’s Kiss by Julia Ember, so when I saw she had another book on Netgalley, I went and requested it. Lesson learned: when you want to read one book by an author, don’t pick up a completely different book instead. You’d think this would be obvious, but here I am.
Tashi is an inhibitor, someone who’s soul is bonded to an animal and trained to protect and serve their country, even though their life will last only as long as their soul bonded animal. Sixteen-year-old Tashi has spent their entire life training, but they were still unprepared when their country was invaded. They and Katala, their tiger, flee to a remote monastery… but the enemy follows. By chance, Tashi is chosen as a servant for the commander of regiment, placing them in the perfect position to act as a spy.
The Tiger’s Watch has some solid core ideas, but I think they could have used more development. For one, I generally think conflict was lacking. At first, suspense comes from Tashi needing to keep their status as an inhibitor hidden, but they never seem too concerned about this, so it’s hard to care. As for the spying, the major information Tashi is looking for is why the enemy regiment and their commander Xian are at the monastery. Again, Tashi doesn’t seem to feel any urgency about this, so it was hard for me to get invested. A lot of the plot points described in the official blurb only happen about two thirds of the way through, and it’s only then that Tashi faces real conflict. The story does improve at this point.
However the major decision Tashi faces has to do with a love triangle. This is the young adult genre, after all. This is another area where I found the blurb to be misleading, since it suggests that Xian is the one Tashi’s in love with. This isn’t quite true — Tashi has feelings for a friend who’s also an inhibitor, although there’s no denying that they’re lusting after Xian. Honestly, that was so off putting. Xian tortures someone in front of Tashi, and yet Tashi starts getting all these soft feelings for him? Just… why? Because he’s hot? Because he’s nice to Tashi even if he hurts other people? Regardless, Tashi gives Xian way too much leeway and makes some really bad decisions relating to him.
You may have already clued into this from the use of “they/them” pronouns, but Tashi’s nonbinary (specifically genderfluid). It’s not a plot point or something that the story depends on. No coming out or queer angst. It’s a YA fantasy adventure story with a genderfluid protagonist, which is something I know a lot of readers are looking for. While I can’t speak to the quality of the representation, currently the only review I’ve seen from a nonbinary reviewer is positive.
Other thoughts regarding The Tiger’s Watch:
- It’s very short — under two hundred pages. I don’t know if it would qualify as a novella.
- Tashi’s country is based on Bhutan. This is another area where I can’t speak to the quality of representation, and I as yet have seen no reviewers from Bhutanese reviewers.
- The supporting cast is very dude heavy. There’s only one female character in the book (looking at humans only, not Katala), and she exits the scene about half way through. I have heard that this will change in the next book in the series.
Unfortunately, I’m not planning on reading the next book. While I didn’t think The Tiger’s Watch was terrible, I basically found it to be another mediocre YA fantasy novel. That said, someone who is really looking for nonbinary representation in fantasy would be advised to at least look into it.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.