The Empress of Salt and Fortune: A literary puzzle-box

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Cleric Chih and their hoopoe, Almost Brilliant, are on a journey to the capital — both to view the next month’s impending eclipse and to be present at “the new empress’ Dragon Court” — and along the way, the two make a stop at Lake Scarlet, where an old woman invites the pair to stay and catalogue, for the first time, the treasures held there. Chih soon discovers that the old woman, named Rabbit, has a fair number of stories to tell as well: stories of The Empress of Salt and Fortune, who came from the mammoth-filled north and wielded great power despite her exile, eventually changing the Ahn empire forever.

Nghi Vo’s debut novella is painstakingly crafted, slowly teasing out crucial information with richly-layered and gorgeous prose. The method by which the story of Empress In-yo is told echoes the ways in which the empress’ will and revenge are enacted — slyly, in an almost sideways fashion, with key details nearly sneaking under one’s nose. One must pay careful attention to what isn’t said, what isn’t shown, just as much as one needs to remember what is seen.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (The Singing Hills Cycle Book 2)

Sequel

As much as I love a good story focusing on the hard and bloody process of revolution, I’m equally absorbed by the newer methods by which writers are approaching the same subject; Vo’s SINGING HILLS CYCLE reminds me of JY Yang’s TENSORATE novellas in that both writers approach societal upheaval through the lens of seemingly-ordinary people in proximity to great power, both place genderfluid characters at the forefronts of their narratives, and each brings a welcome freshness and new life to timeworn tropes.

Chih and Rabbit are delightful, well-written characters, and have their own parts to play in how The Empress of Salt and Fortune (2020) is told. Almost Brilliant’s interjections and interactions with the human characters add levity to the serious subject matter, along with some fascinating exposition of how the empire once operated. Empress In-yo, constantly undervalued by the Imperial Court, reveals a depth of patience that would shame a glacier, and I was more than a little in awe of her by the end.

Despite the short page count, not a single word is wasted here, and the story stands alone perfectly well as a thrilling tale of two remarkable individuals, shared between two people who happened to come together at the right moment.

Happily, Vo has another novella in THE SINGING HILLS CYCLE scheduled for publication in late 2020, and I will make a priority out of reading When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (and anything else she writes) as soon as humanly possible. Highly recommended.

Published in March 2020. A Paste Most Anticipated Novel of 2020. A Library Journal Debut of the Month. A Buzzfeed Must-Read Fantasy Novel of Spring 2020. With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama, Nghi Vo’s 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 in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully. Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor’s lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for. At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She’s a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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2 comments

  1. Kelly Lasiter /

    This sounds fantastic!

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