Welcome to Diversity in Speculative Fiction, formerly Diversity in Sci-Fi! Today we are reviewing The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo, a Chinese-inspired high fantasy novella.
Title/Author: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
Summary: Cleric Chih and their companion Almost Brilliant, a talking bird or neixin who has a perfect memory, are tasked with collecting and recording history. They arrive at Thriving Fortune, the former home of the exiled Empress In-Yo, who passed away a year ago. On the glowing banks of Lake Scarlet, they meet Rabbit, an elderly woman who tells them of her life story as a trusted servant to the Empress and of the time the two spent at Thriving Fortune.
Book Format: eBook, print, and downloadable audiobook
Length: 112 pages
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is set in the fictional empire of Anh, a fantasy world inflected with Chinese history and mythology. The East Asian influence shines through every aspect of the richly detailed world, from the dynastic political landscape, to the names of the characters who populate the empire, to the foods they eat. It's a nice change of pace from the majority of high fantasy settings, which often take place in worlds inspired by medieval Europe.
This was such a refreshingly queer novella! Rabbit, an elderly woman who resides near Lake Scarlet, greets Chih by referring to them as a girl, but upon closer inspection, she realizes she accidentally misgendered them. "Not a girl at all, but a cleric." As a cleric of the Singing Hills abbey, Chih appears to renounce gender entirely They shave their head, adopt they/them pronouns, and eschew gendered terms such as "girl," although they are gracious and understanding of Rabbit's mistake. Rabbit speaks of loving both men and women, while Empress In-Yo is also queer. Furthermore, this world is free of homophobia.
This was a fiercely feminist book. Without spoiling the context, my favorite line is simply, "Angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves." While Chih is the frame narrator for this story, the plot revolves around Rabbit, In-Yo, and the complex relationship between these two extraordinary women. They meet when Rabbit is a servant girl and In-Yo is the Emperor's newest wife. Their stories intertwine, and after In-Yo is exiled from the palace, Rabbit continues to serve her faithfully.
This novella is short but beautiful. It's a quick read of under two hours. It tells a powerful story in barely 100 pages, and you don't need to be familiar with Chinese culture in order to understand it. I particularly loved the writing style. Chih is sharply witty at times, and they have a knack for lush descriptions. Tasked with documenting history, they record the many relics they discover at Thriving Fortune, and the language they use is so vivid. I would have liked to have seen more magical elements, but as this is a series, I'm hopeful for more worldbuilding in future books. Fortunately, there is already a new book in the Singing Hills cycle that I can't wait to pick up: When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain.