I’m so glad I managed to sneak in this novella between work assignments! It’s a swift read, tho the first few pages require the reader to make several quick adjustments as Nghi Vo drops us directly into her Asian-inspired milieu. It’s well worth it tho, as Ms Vo packs a whole lot more into this slim volume than most fantasy novels can manage in three times the page length.
We open on Chih, a cleric from the Singing Hills abbey, sent to the capital to record the eclipse that will mark the ascension of Anh’s latest ruler. Accompanied by their near-immortal hoopoe bird Almost Brilliant, their task is to chronicle whatever they come across without fear or favor, a shared mission that has often brought the wrath of the powerful down on their remote abbey. Still the order and its remarkable birds survive, tho not even political favor can ascertain the day-to-day safety of its intrepid chroniclers as they traverse the empire, braving omnipresent ghosts and more prosaic perils in their journeys.
Passing by a seemingly abandoned estate on the banks of Lake Scarlet while on their way to the capital, Chih is surprised to be invited inside by the elderly caretaker. They had known that the building had been the home-in-exile of the previous Empress In-yo, but had thought it destroyed once the titular ruler returned to power some decades ago. Apparently there’s still one person left to fend off looters, an old servant who introduces herself as Rabbit and who seems determined that Chih not only records what’s left of the villa but also understands what happened here so many years ago, as In-yo successfully plotted her way back to the throne.
The Empress Of Salt And Fortune is very tightly written, a virtuosic surprise given the epic nature of its scope, chronicling the rise and fall and rise of a foreign-born ruler through the eyes of her devoted servant. It’s wise and heart-breaking and can be forgiven the occasional touch of melodrama as Rabbit seeks to make Chih understand more than she’s capable of saying herself. The only thing I, as a reader, didn’t understand was why Rabbit felt so little loyalty to the current empress: she knew that what she was telling Chih would endanger the young woman but pressed on anyway, which I found mystifying. But perhaps that will be something resolved in future novellas, as Chih makes their way to the coronation. I’ve already reserved the next book in the series from the library, so I’m hoping to find out soon!
Oh, and if you’re a Hugo voter and enjoyed this book as I did, consider nominating it for this year’s Best Novella award! Nominations close Friday at midnight PST!
The Empress Of Salt And Fortune by Nghi Vo was published March 24 2020 by Tor.com and is available from all good booksellers, including
Want it now? For the Kindle version, click here.