Book Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Title: The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Author: Nghi Vo

Publisher: Tor.com

Publication Date: March 24, 2020

Genres: Fantasy

Shelves: Female-fronted, Female-authored

It’s not often I describe a book as beautiful but, dammit, The Empress of Salt and Fortune was as gorgeous in its telling as it was lush in its setting. It’s a simple tale in so far a the plot is concerned, but layered and complex in its narrative stylings.

Nghi Vo tells the story through Rabbit, an elderly woman who was once handmaiden to the Empress, as she shares her memories with Chih, a non-binary Cleric, and ALmost Brilliant, their sentient avian companion, prompted by artifacts and mementos found with a cottage on the shores of a haunted lake. The opening pages, as Chih walks the lonely path between spirits, is one of the most fantastic scenes I’ve come across in recent fiction.

The narrative structure here is one of patterns and puzzles. Each chapter opens with a cataloguing of artifacts, paired with thoughts and observations from Chih, followed by Rabbit sharing a memory prompted by those objects, and then finishing with a question regarding the deeper significance of those memories. It should be artificial and repetitive, but the novella-length keeps it from becoming tiresome.

What those memories come together to tell is the story of two women far from home, trapped in some ways, and yet never prisoners. We see them both raised high, cast into exile, targeted for assassination, and quietly raised up again through the subtle plots and plans so easily overlooked by men with time-worn assumptions of purpose and agency. It is a story where how and why are just as important as what, and where each chapter holds a new revelation.

The telling of The Empress of Salt and Fortune makes the novella-length perfect for this tale, but I would have like more detail and depth. There’s an entire novel buried deep within these pages, but we’re only given a surface glance, limited to those artifacts, memories, and questions.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀ 1/2

My sincere thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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