Title: The Empress of Salt and Fortune
Author: Nghi Vo
Series: The Singing Hills Cycle, #1
Publisher: Tor.com Publishing
Publication Date: March 24, 2020
Genre: Fantasy, Adult
Rating: ☕☕☕☕ (4/5)
With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women.
A young royal from the far north is sent south for a political marriage. Alone and sometimes reviled, she has only her servants on her side. This evocative debut chronicles her rise to power through the eyes of her handmaiden, at once feminist high fantasy and a thrilling indictment of monarchy. (via Goodreads)
“Angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves.”
In The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Nghi Vo delivered a fantastically written Asian-inspired novella – full of richly described scenes and fascinating characters. The book is written in an alternating narrative: between the present, when Chih (a traveling cleric from the Singing Hills abbey) and their companion, Almost Brilliant (a neixin, a sort of wise breed of bird, who also thrive in knowledge and histories, gathers stories and memories and passes it down its line) traveled to Thriving Fortune (the place where the former Empress In-yo was exiled) to be one of the first to unearth its secrets after years of being “classified” where they meet the now elderly “Rabbit” (handmaiden to the former Queen); and Rabbit’s memories of the place and her relationship with the Empress throughout the years.
This novella served as the introduction to Chih, a non-binary cleric whose primary job (from what I read, a job borne by being part of the Singing Hills Abbey, or a certain sect?) is to travel to places and record whatever piece of history they could get. There is a quote that I find interesting while when I read it which, at least with how I see it, is a subtle call out to how history is written and wishful thinking of how it could be:
“That is your calling, isn’t it? To remember and to mark down.”
“It is. Sometimes the things we see do not make sense until many years have gone by. Sometimes it takes generations. We are taught to be content with that.”)
To record everything, in the hopes that it makes total sense or that you would somehow see how each relates to the grand scale of things – no matter how much time pass. That “faith” and that assigned importance to events otherwise treated as mundane and, thus, usually treated as footnotes to someone’s story, or worse: forgotten. It also briefly touched on the dangers of knowing too much and how, somehow, these risks endangers the very essence of preserving things (“The clerics of the Singing Hills were always aware of the risk of seeing too much. The burn marks on the abbey’s thick stone walls spoke of many warlords and monarchs who did not wish to be seen so clearly…“). It was an interesting premise, and I do hope this will be explored more in the coming stand-alone sequel to this which, I would guess from the blurb, will heavily feature Cleric Chih as a character – a character designed to lift unheard and forgotten voices in history.
This also brings us to another point: women in the diaspora. Empress In-yo was a foreign princess taken to the Palace of Gleaming Light to wed the current emperor. She was treated as an outsider, someone strange. And when it came to the point when she bore the heir, she was sent into exile to live out the rest of her days, away from the palace to avoid influencing the heir. I read this line about In-yo from a Nghi Vo interview: “When you’re cut off from the culture that birthed you, you have so many unexpected choices and sometimes what feels like none at all. You get strange, you get strong, and you can get desperate.” – and I thought how wonderfully the way this novella was written encapsulated that feeling.
One drunken evening, many years on, In-yo would say that the war was won by silenced and nameless women, and it would be hard to argue with her.
By having Rabbit relay the story – how it really happened – in a way, they are taking back what was theirs. A history that no one can touch. Which circles back to the supposed “footnotes in history” I am talking about. I wonder how much of history was dictated by those who survive? How much was told and recorded to suit a certain narrative? How much erasure was there of the people who’ve actually won the rebellions, the instruments to the success of uprisings, just because these are done through back doors and unconventional means? (It vaguely reminds me of this Artemis Fowl quote somehow.)
The story was a bit slow in the beginning, gradually gaining steam towards the latter part – only for me to be smacked by a revelation that actually made all In-yo’s actions make sense. I must admit that there are a couple of moments where I felt lost (“Are you going to ask me if I understand? I am still not sure if I do.”), especially in the beginning part as well as when certain items/mementos are mentioned at the beginning of chapters – because I felt like they served some symbolism that I wasn’t able to catch. But this also reverts to the very nature of what Chih’s job as a “recorder of history” entails: to sit back and to keep going even if things don’t make sense yet. And I’m honestly glad I did. Because I was treated to something exquisite when all the pieces finally fell to its rightful place.
“The abbey at Singing Hills would say that if a record cannot be perfect, it should at least be present. Better for it to exist than for it to be perfect and only in your mind.”
I don’t know why the novellas I’ve read recently in this vein always remind me of the experience I had while reading The Black Tides of Heaven (hi, Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water) – maybe it’s the length or the style, maybe there is just a specific cadence to how Asian authors tell their story, OR maybe this is just the Tensorate series calling me home – I will never know. But one thing is for sure: I am definitely enjoying these short but quality offerings I’m encountering from these authors. Nghi Vo is definitely a new author I’ll be watching out for and I am just so excited to read her future works. She has an upcoming full-length novel coming out in 2021: The Chosen and The Beautiful, “a queer, magical retelling of The Great Gatsby through the eyes of a transracial Vietnamese adoptee Jordan Baker” – I mean, a Jordan Baker POV novel + retelling through a transracial Viet adoptee lens? Sign me up!
Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a breathtaking feminist fantasy novella that starts out quietly and will treat you with great emotional payout right at the finish line. If you’re ever looking for a quick read (savor it, even if it is short), I highly recommend you pick this up! It’s definitely worth your time.
Re. the COVER
I would be lying if I say that I wasn’t initially intrigued by this book because of the cover. I mean, LOOK AT IT – who wouldn’t? That cover SLAPS. This was illustrated by the brilliant Alyssa Winans – an artist from the Asian diaspora herself. (I’m still trying to see if there’s a specific letterer to this because that typography work is just heaven in my eyes.) Even if you don’t have any idea what this book is about, this is the type of cover that grabs you and forces you to look at it closely. After finishing this novella, I saw this cover in a different light – with all the little quirky symbolisms sprinkled to it (“There was only one woman in the world who had the right to show the mammoth and the lion, and she was to be crowned in her first Dragon Court in the capital.“). Alyssa Winans also did the art for the upcoming stand-alone sequel to this, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (out on December 8, 2020!).
Read this brilliant interview of Nghi Vo back at Tor: Revealing The Empress of Salt and Fortune and Publishing in the Age of Diaspora Fantasy
Being close to her was like being warmed by a bonfire, and I had been cold for a long time.