I’m not sure how I came across this incredible author and series. Perhaps it was that amazing cover or the hints of cultural magic mixed with references to strong women within an ancient history fantasy setting in the description. The Hugo award helped.
It doesn’t prepare a reader for the sheer beauty, the quiet cruelty, and vastness of the world found here. Love. Passion, rage , revenge. Lakes that seem benign until the sun lowers and start to glow an ominous red.
Everything revealed in the most powerful and astonishing way.
Our first narrator is the Cleric Chih. Pronouns they, them. Chih, is something of a prodigy within the Abbey, which from the occasional conversational mentions isn’t always easy or welcome. Their job along with the hoopoe, their companion Almost Brilliant is to record everything. The hoopoe , a neixin, is a being able to remember everything, store and then regurgitate the information to a “hive species brain” the entirety of all memory.
Almost Brilliant is a fascinating character with a history of devastating loss. Together they are instructed to catalog, by brush, or by memory, every detail, heard, seen, and more, which will then sent back to their Abbey for logging and recording for all time. They hold the world’s knowledge and secrets, no matter the size. Something not all leaders are easy with.
Our journey starts with Chih and Almost Brilliant on the way to the Capital when they decide on a side trip to the old Empress’s place of exile, the Lake Scarlet with its mysterious red glow and Thriving Fortune, the estate of the barbarian Empress In-yo, recently decommissioned.
There by the shores of Lake Scarlet, they meet an elderly woman, Rabbit, who leads them to Thriving Fortune. As Chih and Almost Brilliant begin to catalog the world of Thriving Fortune, that which remains, a second perspective and tale begins.
Against an almost poetical list of the contents of once alive dwelling, the intricate, powerful story of the Empress of Salt and Fortune, In-yo and her handmaiden, Rabbit, unfolds.
I don’t believe there’s a way to bring the depths, secrets, and power of this story into a review.
It will leave you with many questions about Chih, the Singing Hill Abbey and Almost Brilliant too. I’m hoping that the next books will supply some more information.
Is this a romance? No. Are there love stories? Yes. But not all in the manner of romantic love, although there are some. But this isn’t a book which lends itself to easy descriptions, or narrative boxes.
Much like the characters who defy description themselves.
I highly recommend The Empress of Salt and Fortune (The Singing Hills Cycle #1) by Nghi Vo. It will stay with you, leave you with images and characters long past the ending.
I can’t wait to meet up with Cleric Chih and Almost Brilliant once again.
Singing Hills Cycle:
✓ The Empress of Salt and Fortune #1
◦ When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain #2
◦ Into The Riverlands #3
◦ Mammoths at the Gates #4 – September 12, 2023
Reviewer’s Note: I find this so simplistic and the description actually leaves so much of the series foundation and story out. It’s a shame, because the gender neutral character of the cleric of the Singing Hills Abbey is the one that ties all 3 books together and is such an amazing character on their own.
With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama, Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women. A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully. Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor’s lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for. At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She’s a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.