The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Nghi Vo (Tor.com Publishing 978-1-25075-029-7, $3.99, 124pp, eb) March 2020.
At this point it should no longer surprise me when Tor.com puts out a gorgeous little novella that robs me of anything meaningful to say, because I want only to luxuriate in its pleasures rather than offering a critical assessment. Yet here we are, The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo on one side of the table, me on the other. I shrug, speechless, happy about the whole chain of events that led us here but upset about whatever has to happen next. It’s a beautiful novella: haunting, meaningful, exquisite, like an antique, inlaid jewelry box with dangerously sharp edges. But how will I fill up the rest of this review?
In the way of Victorian novels – and possibly of Asian literature beyond my ken – Nghi Vo’s debut uses layers of narration to tell the tale indirectly. Our first layer is Chih, a nonbinary cleric; the second is Rabbit, a very old woman telling a story to Chih while they share a house by a lake; the third and most crucial is In-yo, an empress who rebels and rearranges the empire that would send her into exile and assassination. Rabbit knows this story because she served In-yo for many years, learned all of her secrets, and even allowed herself to be part of one of her biggest.
This little book encompasses adventure, intrigue, love, murder, beauty, and even more. It’s magical – a speaking hoopoe with an outsized attitude strikes a sweet note – and wise, despite its utter lack of pretension. ”Chih was old enough to know that no one was harmless, and still young enough to obey instantly that tone of command from an older woman,” Vo writes. ”Eventually, the historian clerics knew, things would come out, whether it took five years, fifty, or a hundred,” she narrates, referring to long-kept secrets. When a character asks In-yo how she lives with a constant terror outside her home, In-yo replies, ”As you live with anything, I suspect. You bear it, or you end it. So far, we have proved equal to bearing it.”
Along with her fine ear for musical sentences, Vo has a gift for this kind of doled-out wisdom. It goes hand in hand with her gift for storytelling, the around-the-fire type. The layers of narration in this novella give us the sense that we are getting a long-lost true tale, passed from person to person, rather than a history coldly recorded by the victors. ”Do you understand?” Rabbit asks Chih, at the end of each segment of her story. Usually Chih shakes their head. It’s a bigger story than it seems, all the way through, hardly so small as an old woman telling tales over dinner.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a novella about resistance to forced silence. In-yo does everything she can to make a permanent mark after attempted erasure, and Rabbit, a woman of a class whom history would erase entirely, does the same. It takes blood and secrecy, but they both triumph. Perhaps the old women telling tales over dinner have greater power than men marching in battlefields after all. This novella proves that small stories have enormous resonance.
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.
This review and more like it in the June 2020 issue of Locus.
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