With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama 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. Alone and sometimes reviled, she has only her servants on her side. This evocative debut chronicles her rise to power through the eyes of her handmaiden, at once feminist high fantasy and a thrilling indictment of monarchy.
Beyond the breathtaking cover, I went into this novella with zero expectations. I came out with a captivatingly intimate tale that still managed to encompass a broader scope. Between a combination of Vo’s delicate prose and quiet character interactions, I was absolutely spellbound as I read.
The first thing that struck me as I read was Vo’s prose. We open to our MC Chih, a cleric traveling in search for details of a past historical event. Through this first scene, the sweeping, evocative descriptions of scenery that set the tone and expectations for the rest of the book. After Chih meets Rabbit and Rabbit begins to tell her tale, the language almost seems longing, and yet distant, giving the reader Rabbit’s feeling of longing, yet understanding that the past can no longer be revisited. At the start of each chapter are item descriptions, simplistic yet detailed, describing an item Chih finds around Rabbit’s house, and it’s through these items that the plot slowly unfolds.
Empress of Salt and Fortune is told in two parts, Chih and Rabbit’s interactions in the present, and Rabbit’s tale of her time as a servant girl to Empress In-Yo during her ascendency. In-Yo, a young bride from the Northern country, wed for peace and a child, exiled once her duties were fulfilled, and her quiet usurpation of the throne. The items described at the beginning of each chapter are mundane and common, easy to be passed over with a glancing eye. In parallel, the characters surrounding In-Yo, aiding her in the rebellion, are likewise commonly ignored: a servant girl, one in a line of fortune-tellers, a lady-in-waiting who’s lost the Emperor’s favor. A focus is placed where focus is commonly overlooked.
Rabbit tells her story over several days, slow and unhurried. She ends each day with the words, “Do you understand?”, bidding Chih, and the reader, to more closely examine the details that the Emperor and his men had not. The full picture takes time to unravel and often, the most important revelations are never stated, only implied for the reader to work out on their own. I firmly believe this is a book worth a second read, to pick up on the subtleties that had been missed the first time around without the full story.
Overall, I rate this book a 5/5. Evocative and captivating, I was absolutely enthralled as I read, and while this novella barely runs over 100 pages, I was left more than satisfied with both the plot and the worldbuilding. The tone is overall contemplative and more than a little sad, yet the moments of extreme joy interlaced between truly bring this beautiful novella to life.
r/Fantasy 2020 Bingo Squares
- Novel Featuring a Ghost (hard mode)
- Novel with Chapter Epigraphs (hard mode)
- Novel Published in 2020 (hard mode)
- Feminist Novel (hard mode)
- Novel Featuring Politics
- Magical Pet (hard mode)