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

Blurb

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.

Review

I buddy read this book with Sarah @ Suits of Stories!

I’ve noticed a trend: whenever I rate a book five stars, I really struggle to talk about it. This is one of those cases, because where the heck do I start? This novella packs a far bigger punch than anything you could expect from such a slender little book.

Our story follows Chih, a nonbinary cleric-historian from the abbey of Singing Hills, who is traveling to see an eclipse with their talking bird familiar. They meet an old woman named Rabbit living in a house at the edge of a magical lake, and Rabbit invites them to stay the night. Chih is intending to remain for only a brief period, but the house and its elderly keeper hold many mysteries that they cannot help but investigate.

What I find interesting is how the story of the title character, the Empress of Salt and Fortune, is told. Each day in the house by the lake, Chih finds collections of objects that have been stored away. Rabbit tells them the history of each object, and in doing so reveals a grander picture of the lives of both her younger self and the Empress.

There is magic in this story; there are ghosts who devour the living, a woman who was turned into a kingfisher, and a magical summer that lasted sixty years. However, in spite of its pervasiveness, magic is largely relegated to the background — on the rare occasions it surged to the foreground, I was startled and delighted by how strange and wonderful it was.

What made The Empress of Salt and Fortune earn its five star rating, however, was the subtleties of its feminist message. Women and girls are bought, sold, and traded for favors in this world. They have very little control over even the most minute details of their lives. However, this story is about a woman taking control and wresting back everything that was taken from her. She triumphed in spite of suffering the worst indignities and most dishonorable treatment, and I was reveling in that triumph.

But this is more than just a feminist power trip. As a monarch, the Empress takes and takes and takes. Her rise to power comes at a grievous cost to the one most loyal to her, and I found myself swallowing a bitter note alongside that of triumph. Her most loyal servant gives up everything for the Empress, and gets so little in return. There is no discussion in this book of whether the Empress’ rise to power was a boon to the common people, or whether it was right or justified as anything other than revenge for the hurt she received. The Empress is not necessarily a “better” ruler than her predecessor — but she was the one her servant voluntarily chose to devote herself to, and that’s what matters in this story.

I love this book. I think it’s a complicated book in spite of its (lack of) length, and that it gives its readers a lot to think about concerning the nature of power in the hands of monarchs.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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