THE EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE is the book that got me excited enough to finally kick my imposter syndrome in the head, log on and request an ARC from Netgalley. Needless to say I was pretty shocked when I was actually approved, but also excited to curl up with an advance copy of a fantasy novella I simply couldn’t wait to read.
This short novella is the story of the Empress In-yo, a young northern royal sent south to be married off to the ambitious emperor as part of a loveless political marriage following the conquest of her people. She’s widely treat with contempt in the emperor’s court and immediately exiled once she has performed her ‘duty’ of producing a male heir. It’s a multi-faceted story of revenge, female solidarity and the the injustices of empire and monarchy.
The story itself is told in a uniquely engaging way. The first chapter introduces Chih, cleric of an order dedicated to the recording and preservation of history, and their fantastic companion, the wonderfully-named Almost Brilliant, a talking hoopoe bird with a photographic memory who assists them in their work. Chih and Almost Brilliant meet an old woman called Rabbit at the late Empress In-yo’s residence, who recalls her life as Empress In-yo’s handmaiden through her recollection of memories inspired by the objects and mementos Chih records in their ledger during their stay.
Each chapter is headed by Chih’s very objective ledger entry. Sleeping robe. Silk, muslin and silk thread; Cup. Polished mahogany inlaid with silver; Box of cumin. Wood, copper and spice. The objects themselves provide us with little insight, but through Rabbit and the memories they inspire her to recall we’re given a window through which we observe the life she lived, alongside an exiled empress whose agency and capacity to impose her will on a stiflingly patriarchal world is revealed as the story progresses.
This narrative device is quite beautiful; alongside the evocative, but still tightly-controlled flow of the prose, it provides an interesting meta-narrative for those who want to think about the story on a deeper level. Stories are always told from someone’s perspective. Good writers do this even in third person narratives, telling the story through the lens of the viewpoint character, who impose their own biases and prejudices on the story. EMPRESS goes a step further than that. Because the story is filtered through a second layer of human experience i.e. Rabbit’s own perception of events and then the way she recalls them after the fact, we as the reader are actually twice removed from the ‘actual events’ of the story. The result is a multi-layered rumination on the act of story-telling, memory and the shared experience of female solidarity in a world where established systems of power exist to minimise their existence.
None of this comes at the expense of characterisation or world-building though. I loved the relationship between Chih and Almost brilliant. The two of them clearly have a bond of deep love friendship and that is often expressed through chiding admonishments and loving jibes. Almost Brilliant admonishes Chih’s reckless curiosity in a way that reminded me of Pantalaimon and Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books. There’s a great little snippet near the beginning that establishes this lovingly humorous relationship right off the bat.
“Cleric Chih, get back to your campsite! You are going to get yourself killed, and then I will have to tell the Divine how terribly irresponsible you were.”
“Be sure to make a good account of it,” Chih said absently. “Hush now, I think I can see what made that racket.”
Another little moment I loved came near the start too, when Chih introduces themself to Rabbit.
“I am Cleric Chih from the Singing Hills abbey. This little feathery menace is Almost Brilliant.”
I was excited to read THE EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE, but I didn’t expect to be so moved by it. This is a wonderful book, beautifully-written, with a story that is as engaging on the surface as it is deeper down. It’s quite remarkable that Nghi Vo has packed so much depth and meaning into a book as short as this and yet nothing ever feels rushed or shoe-horned in. It was a pleasure to read and I’m eagerly looking forward to whatever she does next.
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