The Empress of Salt and Fortune

by Nghi Vo

Cover image

Series: Singing Hills Cycle #1
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: March 2020
ISBN: 1-250-75029-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 119

Buy at Powell's Books

Cleric Chih is a record-keeper and historian from the Singing Hills abbey. They have come to Lake Scarlet with their neixin, the hoopoe Almost Brilliant, because the magical imperial lock placed on the site by the Empress In-yo has just been lifted. They hope to be one of the first to catalog what may be found there, but are surprised to encounter an old woman named Rabbit. Along with a catalog of objects will come a catalog of stories.

Empress In-yo came from the north, a political bride for Emperor Sung. She was exiled to Lake Scarlet, to a compound her attendants called Thriving Fortune as a bitter joke. This is the site that Cleric Chih is cataloging. The old woman named Rabbit was one of the empress's attendants. Cleric Chih slowly draws out her stories, often sparked by an object found in the compound and described in the chapter epigraphs.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a short fantasy novella set in a slightly modified version of China. In-yo comes from a recognizably Mongolian north, but it's colder and has mammoths. Anh, the analogue of China, uses magic to ensure that winter never comes. The court politics, though, seem largely unchanged from our world. The empress from the north had one important duty: delivery of an heir. Once that was done, the empire had no more need for her.

That was, as foreshadowed at the start of the novella, not the end of In-yo or Rabbit's story.

This is a lovely, layered, and subtle story that was a bit too subtle for my mood when I was reading it. It is the type of story that understates the emotions of the characters and rewards close reading and paying attention. I was not paying enough attention and missed a few significant character developments, which in this concise and careful of a story is not advisable. If you read this, learn from my experience, take it slow, and don't expect major plot events to be signaled in neon.

The center of this story is careful and ruthless use of power in a world that is attempting to deny you any, and the sacrifices that one makes to reach that power anyway. Both the empress and Rabbit play bad hands with great effectiveness, taking advantage of the ways in which they're underestimated. It's a sharp and difficult and quietly angry story with a good emotional payoff that doesn't deliver a typical ending. I like stories in which characters make difficult decisions with their eyes wide open, and then refuse to second-guess them or feel bad about the expected consequences.

If you like stories about decisive women using and bypassing systems that were stacked against them, you will probably enjoy this novella.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune won the 2021 Hugo for best novella, but there is not a lot of fantasy here. It's mostly in the background and setting of a political and character story, and I'm not sure any of it was essential to the plot. What it does have is memorable characters and concise and effective storytelling. We may be living through the golden age of the novella, at least in the science fiction and fantasy world.

Chih is a quiet and careful questioner who knows the value of patience and creating space. They don't get much opportunity for characterization in this novella, but what hints we get of their order's approach are intriguing. It appears that this series of novellas will be following Chih rather than the other branches of the story. That will likely keep me reading.

Followed by When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-12-22

Last modified and spun 2021-12-23