TBR Pile Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune, by Nghi Vo

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Paperback, 128 pages
Published March 24th 2020 by Tor.com
ISBN:125075030X (ISBN13: 9781250750303)
Series: The Singing Hills Cycle #1

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.

My Review

I happen to follow Nghi Vo’s agent, Ruoxi Chen, on Twitter; on Tuesday, I saw a Tweet from Ruoxi Chen about the books she’s worked on this year, and Nghi Vo was mentioned. Of course, I had to check her work out, two novellas published by Tor. Ordered Tuesday, arrived today. I was excited to see that three of my favourite living authors had contributed blurb to the back. I am very pleased I did. I’ve finished the first now and will be starting on the second book tomorrow. Probably. I’ve got to finish reading The Invitation, by Katie Webster for the blog tour next week.

The Cleric Chih visits the home of the late Empress In-yo, a place she’d been exiled to after giving birth to Emperor Sung’s son. There, Chih meets Rabbit, the closest friend and servant of the Empress. During their time at the house, Chih hears the truth of In-yo’s life, and discovers the Empire’s greatest secret.

This is a novella of 118 pages. I read it in a couple of hours after I needed a change from writing up a short story and finishing an embroidery. My hands were hurting rather badly, for some reason. Anyway, I have lost a couple of hours, hadn’t even noticed the time passing, the story was so gripping.

Set in a fantasy version of imperial China, the description is strong and evocative. The characters, both those in the primary story and those in the internal stories, are very strong. I felt for the heartbroken Rabbit, and the anger of In-yo, the joy of Bucket telling jokes and picking mushrooms. The plot, weaving between Chih’s cataloguing the Empress’ goods and Rabbit’s tales, was gripping and they built a complex picture of imperial tyranny and revenge.

If you enjoy the work of Zen Cho and JY Yang, you will adore this book.

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