Though it contains tales of considerable violence, The Empress of Salt and Fortune remains in my mind as an almost restful story. It’s set at a secluded compound near Lake Scarlet, a nearly perfectly round lake formed by a falling star, and named for a glow that sometimes appears at sunset, starting faintly and then “sweeping across the lake like the sparks of New Year fireworks. It was brilliant, to hard to look at so very closely, and it flooded the water, enough so that [Cleric Chih] could make out individual trees on the beach, the black silhouette of the night birds on the water, and the seamed face of the woman standing next to [Chih], creased in pleasure.” (Ch. 1) So it is with the story, starting with a low glow and then burning so brightly that all of the Anh empire stands out in relief before fading again.
Chih comes from the abbey in Singing Hills and belongs to an order that records history, not only of the powerful. The old woman from Scarlet Lake “sounded a little like the former Divine, who had always encouraged their acolytes to speak to the florists and the bakers as much as to the warlords and magistrates. Accuracy above all things. You will never remember the great if you do not remember the small.” (Ch. 1) Chih is accompanied by Almost Brilliant, a magical bird that has perfect memory and can talk. It’s a neixin, with the ability to pass all its memories to its descendants, and similarly to call up the memories of its ancestors. That the old woman recognizes the bird and knows its functions is just the first sign that she is much more than she seems. (Also, the bird has Opinions.)
How much more begins to become apparent when she refers to Scarlet Lake as Thriving Fortune.
“… I have never heard the name Thriving Fortune before, grandmother.”
“You wouldn’t. It is what the female attendants of Empress In-yo called it when they first came here from the capital. It was a joke, you see. They were all of the court, and it was a bitter thing indeed for them to be sent into the wilderness with a barbarian empress.”
Chih sat very still, and next to them, Almost Brilliant cocked her head to one side.
“It sounds like you knew of them, grandmother.”
Rabbit [the old woman’s nickname] snorted.
“Of course I did. I came all this way with them, and it was I who told them to hire my father to come up every week with supplies from the main road. They never knew to tip him, or perhaps they thought their cosmopolitan beauty was tip enough. Pah!”
Chih and Almost Brilliant abide a while in Scarlet Lake, and they listen to Rabbit’s stories. Each chapter begins with descriptions of small objects that Chih finds around the compound, and they lead to more tales from Rabbit as she gradually reveals how and why she went from the provinces to the imperial court — and back again. Along the way, Nghi Vo gradually reveals the empire to readers, seen long after the events Rabbit discusses, and from a great distance. The war mages held the empire in eternal summer and the prosperity that brought — until it ended. The late empress whom Rabbit served, and whose ghost-led funeral cortege Chih and Almost Brilliant saw leaving Scarlet Lake as they were coming in, had the right to display the mammoth of the north and the lion of the south. What did that mean?
I found Anh a fascinating world, with Vo delivering just the right balance of personality and archetypical stories. Rise and fall, personal and imperial. But the Empress of Salt and Fortune brings her individuality to bear on her circumstances, in ways that surprised Rabbit at the time and will probably take readers unaware too. Her tale twists and turns, and refracts through Rabbit’s telling as well as Rabbit’s own story.
Cleric Chih returns in When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, and in the forthcoming Into the Riverlands. I’m looking forward to reading both of them.
Doreen reviewed The Empress of Salt and Fortune back in March when it was new, and flagged it as a potential Hugo finalist. Well spotted!