As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Tiger at Midnight, the first book in a YA fantasy trilogy inspired by Indian history and Hindu mythology, is Swati Teerdhala’s debut novel. It follows two characters from antagonistic kingdoms who become entangled in a game of cat and mouse: Esha, the legendary vigilante known as the Viper, and Kunal, a soldier trying to capture the Viper and bring the famed rebel to justice for the assassination of his uncle/general.

Esha and Kunal’s nations were once a kingdom and a queendom, respectively. Both of their lands flourished due to an annual blood sacrifice made by their monarchs, whose twin ancestors received the gifts of this rite and the shape-shifting blood that allowed them to perform it from the gods themselves. But about a decade before the beginning of the story, the king’s younger brother had the queen and her family murdered and took her throne for himself, making the yearly ritual impossible: it requires blood from both a male descendant of the male twin and a female descendant of the female twin. It’s said that one princess escaped the night the usurper murdered the royal family, but with no sign of her since then, the former queendom’s land has been dying—and soon, the drought will spread to the neighboring kingdom and affect its people as well.

The night of the coup was also personally traumatizing for Esha and Kunal, both of whom lost parents during the massacre. Esha’s king provided for her after the deaths of her parents, one of whom had served as an ambassador to the queendom, and she spent the years that followed training, working to undermine the traitor king, and dreaming of vengeance. But when she’s about to fulfill her mission to kill the general who slaughtered her parents, she discovers that someone else beat her to it—just barely, as the man is bleeding out and not quite dead yet when she finds him—and framed her for his murder, leaving behind a replica of one of the Viper’s trademark whips.

After the general’s assassination, his nephew Kunal and three other soldiers are sent to capture the Viper. Whoever successfully captures him (because, of course, they assume the Viper must be a “he”) will become the new commander, and everyone who fails to do so will be punished. The four soldiers are given a choice as to whether or not they accept the mission and its consequences, but it’s not much of a choice for Kunal: his uncle not only raised him after his parents died but had also wanted Kunal to follow in his footsteps and take his place as commander someday.

As Kunal pursues Esha and Esha pursues information on who set her up and why, the two adversaries frequently find themselves getting into and out of scrapes together—and the more time they spend together, the more their growing fondness for each other conflicts with their goals and worldviews.

Tropes sometimes get a bad rap, but there is a good reason particular formulas become common in storytelling. Of course, like anything in fiction, they can fall flat if done poorly or if the story and characters are not well written, but many tropes are popular because they’re custom-made for creating entertaining situations, drama, or compelling character dynamics. In some cases, tropes can even be a novel’s greatest strength—and I believe that to be precisely the case with The Tiger at Midnight.

This is an incredibly fun novel, and I thought that was largely because of the way the author integrated various familiar aspects like enemies whose lives are made more complicated by their mutual attraction, a fiercer girl and a softer boy, and a character with a secret identity. I was left with the impression that Swati Teerdhala not only loves these specific tropes but also really understands what makes them work given the way she wrote her main protagonists and their perspectives.

The story is told through the third-person perspectives of both Esha and Kunal, who first meet in the opening chapter—although Kunal has no idea Esha is the Viper or that she intends to assassinate his uncle, believing her to simply be a lost girl heading in the wrong direction at the time. As he leads her to the footpath leading to the harbor, Kunal finds himself admiring this beautiful, defiant, smart girl and falling into an unusually familiar and flirtatious ease with her. And Esha, in turn, finds herself surprised by the kind-hearted soldier boy who went out of his way to try to help her and is so comfortable talking to him that she slips up and gives him her real name when he asks.

After Kunal sets out to find the Viper, the two meet again and end up spending the night hiding in a tree after fleeing a tiger, allowing them to get to know each other more before Kunal discovers Esha’s true identity. Once he realizes she is the Viper after their first couple of encounters, they continue to run into each other frequently and they have a wonderful dynamic that gets better and better the more they’re thrown together. The two seem to be a match in different ways when they do grapple, and they seem to delight in each other’s company as they end up getting into and out of various situations and even start leaving each other notes. Kunal comes to admire Esha for her fire, strength, and conviction, and between her influence and what he sees during his travels, he further examines his complex relationship with his cruel yet protective uncle and begins to see why Esha and the rebels want change. Esha admires Kunal’s heart, belief in honor and justice (even if he can be naive at times), and thoughtfulness (even if the way he pauses to consider his words carefully before speaking makes her impatient sometimes)—but she also fears someone like this could never care for someone with so much blood on her hands.

A more ruthless, vengeance-driven character and a more merciful, justice-driven character are a great combination, and their scenes are filled with amusing banter. Swati Teerdhala also adds some delicious suspense by using both viewpoints to let readers in on some secrets before the main characters manage to piece them together. Anticipating how and when the characters figure it out, their reactions, and learning more details just makes the reading experience all the more enjoyable.

Although I had a great time with The Tiger at Midnight and its characters, it didn’t have the type of notable prose or dimensional protagonists that would have made it especially memorable to me. However, I found it to be just the type of diverting story I could use this year (and can say the same of the sequel, The Archer at Dawn).

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased the ebook on sale (knowing a publicist would be mailing a copy of The Archer at Dawn).

Read an Excerpt from The Tiger at Midnight

Listen to an Audio Sample from The Tiger at Midnight

Read “The Unlikeable Heroine” by Swati Teerdhala