Saturday, January 4, 2020

"The Empress of Salt and Fortune" by Nghi Vo

A lovely and well-constructed novella, The Empress of Salt and Fortune follows a kind of archivist monk as they catalog the contents of the former residence of the titular empress. The surface story is very gentle and quiet, with Cleric Chih and their assistant, a magical bird, recording objects and learning more about them from Rabbit, an elderly servant.

The story they learn along the way, though—a deeper history of how the empress In-yo orchestrated a coup from her exile, and the secrets from that struggle that Rabbit has kept for decades—is an empire-spanning story of intrigue, deception, and violence, so it's fascinating to see it filtered in this very anthropological way. Each chapter starts with Chih describing objects of a different room, and then recording the oral history that they evoke from Rabbit.

I love the worldbuilding here, it's exquisite and measured. Inspired by imperial Chinese history, though I'm not well-versed enough to guess which period. The details and elaborations are great, however, and feel seamless and natural—the northern kingdoms riding mammoths, the weather mages, the magical creatures that add a sense of wonder and whimsy. The combination of believable magic—including some pretty large effects—and believable non-magical logistics reads very naturally. It's the kind of combination that I often find a bit of struggle, suspension-of-disbelief-wise, in Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire or Yang's Tensorate books, for example, and it's delightful to see it play out so well in Vo's novella.

In addition to the structural approach (which I love! More anthropology/archive-structured SFF, please!) and the worldbuilding, I dig the gender inclusion and measured jabs at patriarchy—the nonbinary protagonist, the revelation of queer relationships, the way In-yo is oppressed by gender roles but then uses them as cover for her operations. Overall, a kind of Le Guin or Atwood-esque approach to epic fantasy, but at a very readable length. Highly recommended!

Out March 24 from Tor.

No comments:

Post a Comment