A review by JC Kang
Reviewer’s Note: Upon finishing this novella, which took six days the first time around, I immediately wrote an initial review where I rated it 6/10 stars. Then, I re-read it, knowing how it ended. Two hours later, I was done, and was smacking my head at having missed the subtlety.
NOT “Handmaid’s Tale meets Game of Thrones”
With a title reminiscent of a Chinese restaurant catering to American tastes, Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune had been buried deep in my Mount TBR since its release in March. While its blurb “Handmaiden’s Tale meets Game of Thrones” intrigued me, the animals on the cover and a character named Rabbit led me to believe it was an anthropomorphic story. When the Goodreads group Books and Boba chose it for its August read, I jumped in.
And Watership Down, it is also not.
All the characters are human, save for a magical talking bird who records history. And history—Napoleon’s fable that we all agree on—is the crux of The Empress of Salt and Fortune. It’s the distilling of facts from “His Story,” or in the case of the recently deceased titular character, “Her Story.” Whereas national canon is a glorious past written by a victor, the dirty details of Empress In-Yo’s rise are revealed by Rabbit— the Empress’ onetime handmaiden and perhaps lover—in this mixed story of third person present and first person past.
I found the framing of the story both a strength and weakness. The non-binary cleric Chih, whose order has ingrained them with a fidelity to history, has grown up enamored by the myths surrounding the empress. With their talking bird, they visit the newly opened Scarlett Lake, where the empress lived in exile during her youth. There, they meet Rabbit, who tells first person accounts about various items they uncover. While on the one hand, it’s a clever way to frame a compelling tale; on the other, I found the approach left huge swaths of telling punctuated by brief glimpses of showing.
From Rabbit’s recollections, it follows In-Yo’s story as a foreign hostage bride to the emperor of a lushly built second world Vietnam. After giving birth to a potential heir, court doctors render her infertile and she is banished to an estate far from the capital. Ladies-in-waiting acting as imperial spies come and go, as well as people who would seek to control what on the surface appears to be a mundane lifestyle.
And herein lies the subtlety I missed in my first reading. Just like the Minister of the Left, who is tasked with keeping tabs on In-yo, I got the hint that something insidious was going on with her own spies—co-opted travelling fortune tellers—but totally missed the bigger picture because of the narrative’s focus on disjointed, seemingly slice-of-life vignettes.
I feel this structure of linear, yet meandering glimpses of seemingly unimportant events did not allow for deeper characterization of much of the cast. Even in the second reading, I did not feel particular connected to the characters. As such, it made it easy for me to put the book down. The first time around, I maybe read 10 minutes at a time.
The prose kept me coming back. The author has a wonderful sense of word choice, and constructs vibrant images at the sentence and paragraph level. Whereas the structure of the story hindered my engagement, the writing style itself pulled me along to the mind-blowing ending.
If you are like me, and had trouble staying engaged with the story, it is well worth your time to stick with it and try to pick up on what is left unsaid. What seemed to have been unimportant slices of life turn out to have deep significance to the twist, such that I immediately went back to the beginning to reread to see what I missed. Living up to at least one aspect of its blurb, it resembled Game of Thrones in the way all the evidence of a masterful twist had been seeded the whole time.
If I rated a story solely on how the ending came together, The Empress of Salt and Fortune would be a slam dunk ten out of ten stars. For the novella length, it really is brilliant, deserving of nine stars. I do still wonder if it would’ve been as riveting as Game of Thrones if told in the moment as a full series, instead of framed the way it was.
*This review first appeared on Fantasy Faction and was reprinted here with permission of the reviewer.