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The Tiger’s Apprentice is an action-adventure fantasy novel by American author Laurence Yep. It was published in 2003 as the first in The Tiger’s Apprentice trilogy. This story inserts ancient Chinese mythology into modern life in San Francisco. The story follows the boy Tom as he becomes the magical apprentice of the tiger Mr. Hu. Together with a band of mythological misfits, their job is to protect the ancient phoenix from Vatten and the Clan of Nine who wish to use its powers for evil. The story explores themes of kindness, loyalty, duty, and bravery.[1]

Plot summary
Tom, a young Chinese American boy, has grown up under the care of his eccentric grandmother, Mrs. Lee, in San Francisco. He is her reluctant apprentice Guardian, learning ancient Chinese magic to protect a coral rose. However, upon the arrival of Mr. Hu, a tiger and Mrs. Lee’s former apprentice, monsters attack. Mrs. Lee dies protecting Tom and the rose, leaving Mr. Hu the guardian of both Tom and the coral rose.[1] (pg. 25–26)

Safe in Mr. Hu’s antique shop in Chinatown, Mr. Hu reveals that the coral rose is actually the phoenix which has the power to transform evil beings into good ones. In ancient Chinese mythology, the creature Kung Kung attempts to use the phoenix to force human beings to obey him. After the Empress Nü Kua defeated Kung Kung, the phoenix chose to return to his egg and await a time of peace when his power would not be misused and the role of the Guardian is created to protect the phoenix.[1] (pg. 39–40) However, Kung Kung’s lieutenant Vatten and the Clan of Nine (named for Vattens form as a nine-headed-serpent) have followed the Chinese Guardians to America and the phoenix will require both Mr. Hu and Tom to protect it. Tom, however, is afraid to truly take on the role of an apprentice Guardian.[1] (pg. 28)

Mr. Hu guides Tom to Goblin Square, a hidden market for the magical inhabitants of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Here they meet Mistral, an old friend of Mr. Hu. Mistral is a Chinese Dragon, an exile from her ocean home for speaking out against the Dragon King.[1] (pg. 89–90) Mistral agrees to leave her job as a bodyguard in order to help Mr. Hu protect the phoenix.

The day after they visit Goblin Square another old friend arrives. Sidney, a zealous salesperson in the form of a flying rat, has seen one of Vatten’s spies.[1] (pg. 30–32, 68) Mr. Hu leaves Tom to wait for Mistral and protect the phoenix. While Mr. Hu is gone, a silver haired girl, Räv, comes to the door in a fright, looking for sanctuary. Although Mr. Hu has commanded Tom not to open the door, Tom is moved by compassion and lets her in. With the door open, the creature Loo arrives. Another creature from ancient Chinese mythology, Loo is a three-eyed fanged creature with blue skin and red hair. He carries an umbrella that shoots fumes of fatal diseases.[1] (pg. 75–83) Tom is knocked unconscious, and Räv and the phoenix disappear. When Tom wakes he finds another of Mr. Hu’s old friends, Monkey. Monkey, who was cursed for challenging Heaven and who stole his magic staff from the Dragon Kingdom, has also come at Mr. Hu’s call to protect the phoenix.[1] (pg. 79, 122)

Mr. Hu arrives to find Tom, Mistral, and Monkey amidst the shambles of his shop. Sidney is locked up for a spy and the four leave, Mr. Hu, Monkey and Mistral in their human forms, to find the phoenix.

The spy’s trail leads them to a run-down house near the ocean where Tom finds Räv tied up and injured. As they try to rescue Räv, the floor turns into a pack of red-scaled, blue-bristled dogs, Hsieh, which overwhelm the would-be-rescuers.1 Loo arrives and reveals that Räv tricked them. Loo traps them in the shrinking room as it fills with water, leaving Räv and the Hsieh to die with them. Though the tiger’s and dragon’s strength cannot break the walls, Tom reminds Mr. Hu his grandmother’s final lesson, “use your wits, not your claws”.[1] (pg. 107) Mr. Hu shrinks everyone trapped and Monkey transforms the hairs of his tail into smaller monkeys which guide everyone out through the source of the water. Räv and the Hsieh are rescued and trapped in a pebble, but not before she reveals that Vatten plans to force the phoenix to hatch early.

Sidney, who has escaped his prison, has found that Vatten has been hiding the phoenix under a hill in the middle of Stow Lake. Though Mr. Hu, Mistral, and Monkey realize that they are too old and will likely not return, they go with Sidney and Tom to find the phoenix. Held up by Loo, Monkey stays behind to fight him while the others proceed to navigate the traps set for them. Mistral is forced to hold back the fanged and clawed tiger-eating unicorn called a Po.[1] (pg. 139) Tom, now determined to live up to his grandmother’s legacy, deliberately springs a trap so Mr. Hu can retrieve the phoenix. Tom is caught in the hair of the venomous, many-headed creature called The Watcher.[1] (pg. 140) Even as a ferocious tiger, Mr. Hu cannot stop them. In a last ditch attempt Mr. Hu and Sidney free Tom by setting the Watcher on fire, but they are too late.

Mr. Hu refuses to give up Tom to death, instead bringing everyone to the magical realm of the Empress. The Empress gives some of Mr. Hu’s tiger soul to Tom to save him. She also presses a golden scale to Tom’s cheek, promising she will come if he calls.[1] (pg. 171) The group returns to the mortal realm with the phoenix, exhausted but successful.

Tom Lee: A young Chinese American and apprentice Guardian.
Mrs. Lee: Guardian and Tom’s grandmother.
Mr. Hu: A Tiger and Guardian
Mistral: Exiled dragon
Monkey: Immortal monkey who challenged Heaven and uses a magical staff.
Räv: Young girl who works for Loo and is betrayed.
Vatten: Enemy leader who wants the phoenix.
Empress Nü Kua: Ancient Chinese goddess
Kindness: Yep places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of kindness. Tom regularly puts himself in danger to rescue others, even when they have wronged him or he is afraid. He does this in imitation of his grandmother who was known for taking in the strays who became her apprentices and friends.
Loyalty: Mr. Hu and Tom accept their duties out of loyalty to Mrs. Lee but continue out of loyalty to each other. Mistral and Monkey are enemies but unite with Mr. Hu because of loyalties. Sidney stays with Mr. Hu even after being accused of being a traitor. All of the characters fight for the phoenix out of loyalty to the Empress and her followers.
Duty: Although Tom is frightened by the world of magic and monsters, he feels it is his duty to retrieve what has been lost. Similarly, Mr. Hu does not wish to carry responsibilities, but upon accepting the duties of the Guardian he takes care of both Tom and the phoenix.
Bravery: Many of the characters are untrained or too old to fight, yet they continue to fight. Each of the characters volunteers to risk their lives in order to protect each other and the phoenix.
Good vs. Evil: the two sides are clearly marked in the struggle for the phoenix. Vatten and the Clan of Nine are evil, taking power and control through violence. In contrast, the guardians of the phoenix fight to protect the innocent and show mercy on their enemies.
The book was followed by two books of the trilogy, Tiger’s Blood and Tiger Magic.

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