The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

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.

Dear Nghi Vo,

This might be described as a novella and readers might go into it thinking, “Oh, I can finish this off in an hour or so.” Readers might be able to but I would recommend that they take their time, slowly savor it, and wait for the revelations they will find at the end if they are patient.

The story is told by an elderly servant to a cleric named Chih from a monastery who, alone with a feisty talking hoopoe, records knowledge for posterity. Now they have arrived at a place where a foreign princess was exiled after she had given birth to the heir to the empire. Shunned and scorned by the palace inhabitants, Empress In-Yo has only her servant girl Rabbit (due to her two slightly longer teeth) with her whom she can trust. The powerful minister rotates court ladies there to spy on In-Yo. The Empress is allowed to see fortune tellers and to send messages to her homeland, seeking to have fortunes told for her. The minister and Emperor laugh and think it harmless and silly. They also allow her to travel the country, visiting religious shrines. What these men don’t hear is what women say. “Angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves.”

It will pay the reader to read this slowly. The world is not laid out in every detail. Some things must be inferred. This is a “show and not tell” story. It is subtle rather than attention grabbing and “in your face.” Attention must be paid to it and the tale must be allowed to spin out to completion. Nothing is told from the Empress’s POV but yet I knew her and that she had plans. In-Yo is clever and willing to wait for her moment. Wait along with her and be rewarded in the end.