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.
Dust lay in thick motes on the history of Lake Scarlet: a soft blanket of years, a soft blanket of years, draped over old secrets and forgotten truths. But Chih, a traveling cleric who walks through puddles of ink, following footprints that form stories in their wake to collect like cards in their heart, is here to disturb them.
Chih meets Rabbit, an elderly woman who tells them of the history of this beautiful and devastating landscape—and the words rise from their ink-and-cotton cradles and swirl into the air again, reshaping the true face of history. Rabbit doesn’t take the sting out of her memories. She doesn’t dust them up along the edges, or blur them with soft pencils. She isn’t telling a story as much as she is pinning down shards of history with well-aimed throws of a dagger before they could melt into paper like watermarks, gone as soon as the ink dries. “Do you understand?” she asks Chi, urgent and hushed, and it feels like a weight Chi can’t shed or throw off, now forever a part of them, as much as their bones and their blood. “Do you understand?” the words, too, like a rope, mooring the reader to the page.
Rabbit tells the story of the exiled Empress In-Yo from the North, who Rabbit served as a loyal handmaiden. In-Yo who was brought to court for a marriage of alliance, and expected to curl into her good-wife place like a loyal hound at her master’s feet—neither loved nor despised, but an in-between creature allowed to scurry freely so long as she didn’t cause trouble. In-Yo who had been called to greater things, and who, in due course, had moved mountains, defeated the mighty, and made the world sing the song she chose for it. In-Yo who might have once carried within her parts of her that nurtured and sang and loved but which went out of her to animate what was left: the fear and rage and vengeance. The world had cycled through endless permutations of this story. They built a sustainable catalog of half-lies, altering truths to appease the living, but Rabbit’s “allegiance lies with the dead, and no matter what the clerics say, the dead care for very little.”
Do you understand?
“Angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves.”
I was almost reluctant to turn the last page of this book, as though I were under a spell that would be broken the moment my finger touched the unyielding reality of my kindle’s power button. Everything was bathed and saturated with its presence, and I felt suspended then, hovering weightless as a puff of smoke, in some place where I could believe in magic and story keepers and memories that extend backward through time’s infinite doorways.
At only 100 pages, the book itself is short, and yet, remarkably, Nghi Vo carries a great deal with her in the pages of The Empress of Salt and Fortune: horror, beauty, wonder, and a searing paean to the power of story. Told through flashbacks, meditations, and stories within stories, a reader has the sense here of a handful of fully realized novels, all circling each other. I had the idea that each of these characters is standing at the beginning of another fantastical story, and I wanted to follow them all.
The novel is taut as piano wire, hypnotic, symphonic, and riveting from its opening lines. In Nghi Vo’s prose, voices have texture and weight like polished ivory—they rise and fall like a ballad, lulling the reader, pulling at them, stroking them—and every rippling nuance is captured with precision and acuity. The fleshy, savory storylines, the gorgeous ideas and images in conflict, as well as in concert, are well worth carrying out of the text to admire further, and the masterful sleight of hand that draws the story to a satisfying ending pretty much begs you to immediately flip to the first page and start all over.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is also a poignant, quietly pensive book, bristling with so much heart-piercing wisdom. In her novel, Nghi Vo turns her attention to the kinds of characters and conflicts you often find sidelined in such stories, pondering weighty questions that feel both urgent and timeless—and she does so to genuinely tremendous effect. It’s “the story under the story,” as Nghi Vo said in a recent talk with Tor, once shrouded and entombed now working itself free, as if slowly rising out of the ruins of a collapsed house after an earthquake, and carving a space where it can beat again. Nghi Vo takes us deeper into a world of strife, where wars are “won by silenced and nameless women”, through seasons when all hopes wilt and die and bloom anew, and deeper we go, feeling as though we were at the cusp of dreaming, yet somehow never more awake.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a ravishingly beautiful book, a graceful, incandescent story like absolutely no other. The longer you stay here, the harder it is to remember anywhere else.