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.
I received an eARC of The Empress of Salt and Fortune from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
This review is going to be brief, because I feel like there’s very little I can say about this novella other than that it’s the kind of story you have to read and experience for yourself. I gobbled it up in one sitting during a train journey, and I already feel like I need to re-read it – this novella feels like the kind of story I could read again and again, and notice something different each time.
In this Asian-inspired fantasy novella, we follow a non-binary protagonist whose job is to collect stories and record history as they meet a woman, known as Rabbit, who worked as a maid for their country’s empress. Through Rabbit, we learn how the empress rose to power.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is beautifully written. Vo is definitely an author I’d like to read more from in future; there was something so immersive and visual about her writing that made me feel like I was right there with Rabbit throughout her memories.
This novella is a celebration of female power and, perhaps more importantly, of the stories that can so easily slip through the cracks of history unless they’re recorded. We all know about kings and queens, emperors and empresses, but it’s their handmaidens like Rabbit who can so often have the biggest impact, and yet are forgotten by history. As someone who’s very into how we can better discover and record history’s marginalised voices, this novella was nothing short of a joy to read.
I highly recommend this novella – particularly if you’re a fan of Asian-inspired fantasy and stories by authors such as Zen Cho, Ken Liu and Fonda Lee!