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.
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.