The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
Published in March 2020 by TorDotCom (an imprint of Macmillan)
“I have taken everything from you. It is the nature of royalty, I am afraid, what we are bred for and what we are taught. I will not take more unless you tell me it’s all right. Do you understand?”
In-yo, princess of the North, arrives at the southern court of Anh in an opulent dress of white sealskin, the like of which has never been seen in the South before. She brings with her a lavish dowry and the promise of a union between North and South, the Mammoth and the Lion. Though In-yo is crowned Empress of Salt and Fortune, divine made flesh, she finds herself isolated and ostracized by a hostile court, belittled and underestimated at every turn by her husband the emperor and his sneering associates. Her handmaiden and most trustworthy ally is a peasant girl called Rabbit, sold into imperial service as a child for five containers of orange dye. The relationship that follows–not a friendship, not really, for even a disgraced empress in exile wields more power than Rabbit ever could–will change the course of the history of the empire.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a classic high fantasy court intrigue drama, soapy and sexy and at times shockingly violent. But author Nghi Vo’s exhilarating worldbuilding and clear-eyed politics put it head and shoulders above most entries into the genre. It’s a dual consciousness balancing act: a critique of monarchy and empire that’s also an indulgence in every sumptuous trope I love about stories of monarchy and empire. The Empress of Salt and Fortune is full of gorgeous clothes, delicious food, high-stakes card games, stylish secret codes, and just about every other convention of the genre you can think of. It’s not preachy or didactic and it doesn’t shame the reader for enjoying reading about those things. But by showing it all through the eyes of Rabbit, one of the thousands of people on whose back this lifestyle is built, Vo is constantly complicating our loyalties.
My favorite example comes when Rabbit recounts how much work it was to clean and care for that striking white sealskin dress, in which In-yo made her intensely symbolic entrance to court:
“I was thirteen then, and it was my job to look after it. I packaged it so carefully between layers and layers of crisp paper, and every ten days I brought it out to brush away any possible moth eggs of larvae.”
All that work, and In-yo never wears the dress again. I was left savoring the beautiful descriptions of the dress–I’ll admit it, clothing descriptions are one of my favorite parts of fantasy, and this book is a doozy in that regard–but I was also left thinking: what a waste. What a waste of a beautiful dress, to sit in a cedar chest forever. More importantly, what a waste of Rabbit’s life, to have to spend that much time taking care of a wasted dress. It’s not that beauty isn’t worth creating and maintaining in the world. But The Empress of Salt and Fortune pushes readers to engage with the particular kind of waste of resources and lives that’s involved in turning royals into beautiful symbols rather than people. I wasn’t exactly pro-monarchy before, but this book had me considering the cost of it in fascinating and affecting new ways.
I’ll admit that, despite all the warm fuzzy feelings I have now, it did take me awhile to “get” this book. At only 112 pages, The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a novella, not a novel, and this leads to some pacing abnormalities. I won’t call them problems, because it all came together spectacularly at the end, but they were unusual enough that I had to really work to understand what was going on at first.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is framed through the eyes of the cleric Chih (who is genderless and uses they/them pronouns) and their magical bird companion Almost Brilliant. The two arrive at Lake Scarlet–the recently declassified location of the empress’s exile–in search of stories to bring back to their religious order. There they encounter the former handmaiden Rabbit, who is eager to tell her tale.
Vo drops the reader straight into this lushly perilous magical universe with no hand-holding whatsoever. The timeline in particular is slippery–Chih keeps referring to a new empress who’s about to be crowned, and it’s not immediately clear what the relationship is between this newcomer and the titular Empress of Salt and Fortune. The book demands your fullest attention from start to finish: I made the mistake of trying to read it one night when I was sleepy and got so confused that I had to start the whole section over again the next day to make sense of it.
But the work it takes to get there is part of what makes the pay-off at the end of those 112 pages so thrilling. Once I turned the last page I sat with it for a long moment, experiencing its emotional wallops one at a time: surprise, heartbreak, longing, peace. I was put more than a little in mind of the ending of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, a novel that trusts its reader to understand the shattering implications of the slightest details.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is as eerie and uncompromising as the empress of its title. It’s searingly political–ferocious, feminist, and queer as hell–while still retaining all the escapism and stunning aesthetics I want out of high fantasy. I hope this is the first of many, many books set in Anh; I’m enormously excited to hear that a stand-alone sequel, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, is coming later this year. ★★★★★
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