The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo – ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Was this what I expected? No. Not even close. It was so much more.
This was a short read packed with so much. This is a great example of what can be done in ~100 pages. This is something you have to think about, and savor, and should not read passively.
For a short read that packs a punch, for beautifully lyrical writing, for a story that emerges through clues and fog and whispers, for a surprisingly gorgeous depiction of a life through objects
With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama 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. Alone and sometimes reviled, she has only her servants on her side. This evocative debut chronicles her rise to power through the eyes of her handmaiden, at once feminist high fantasy and a thrilling indictment of monarchy.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that since this is just over 100 pages that it is sparse in detail or not much happens or you would not have time to learn the characters. We get all of that and more, and in such an elegant way, that it’s stunning to think how few times you actually need to turn the page.
The story is told by Rabbit to the cleric cataloguing the household items as is their duty. Each chapter begins with a spare examination of objects, and yet what’s revealed in the items’ descriptions and mere existences carves a story through time of the exiled Empress. From the very beginning In Yo told Rabbit to learn how to look from the side of her eye, rather than moving her whole head. The style of this story shows that she did eventually learn that lesson, as we hear the Empress’s story through her past possessions and the words of another. Receiving her thoughts as understood by another lends a specific kind of warped knowledge of the empress; we know her, yet only as seen through the eyes of another.
Each set of objects also allows the progression to jump from moment to moment, highlighting changes and events that mattered most. There’s no time for mundanity here. The mix of flashbacks, portrayed as stories Rabbit gives the cleric about each item, blends well with the current state by way of writing it as if it were an oral retelling. This keeps the timeline clear, with no jarring contrasts or abrupt changes.
You are left with some unexplained and ambiguous elements, like the lake’s glow and ghosts and such around the magic of the world. Be willing to accept that you will leave with some unanswered questions. It’s more beautiful for it’s mystery, leaving you with a sense of quiet wonder.
Thank you to NetGalley and Tor for a free copy in exchange for an honest review.