It only took five years, but I am officially In Like with my kindle. I’m in the middle of three different books, but none of them quite fit the mood I was in, so I browsed through my ‘unread’ collection until I found Empress of Salt and Fortune. So many titles that I remember almost nothing about–it’s like book presents from past-carol to future carol. The Empress was one of those that was more unfamiliar; I remembered some sort of ambivalence about it, but not exactly why (and frankly, that could have been misattribution of me in an anti-fantasy mood), so I pushed doubts aside, tucked in and finished in a night. It’s a clever little novella that is almost too clever. (Note for marketers: ideally, one would pick this up in hardcover at Barnes and Nobel, and there would be a box that accompanies it, full of the curiosities mentioned in the book).
“‘Something wants to eat you, called Almost Brilliant from her perch in a nearby tree, ‘and I shall not be sorry if it does.’
Chiming bells. Chih rolled to their feet, glancing around the perimeter and squinting at the jangling string of bells that surrounded the small campsite. For a moment, they were back at the abbey in Singing Hills, late for another round of prayers, chores, and lessons, but Singing Hills did not smell of ghosts and damp pine boughs. Singing Hills did not make the hairs on Chih’s arms rise up in alarm or their heart lurch with panic.”
So begins the first chapter in Empress, though all but one of the rest start with a short description of three items that spark the next chapter in the story. Chih is a cleric who collects histories, whose calling is “to remember and mark down.” At the Scarlet Lake, they meet Rabbit, an elderly woman who shares where her story intersects that of the barbarian Empress In-yo when she was banished from the court by her husband.
The story flits back and forth in time, between the simple domesticity of Chih and Rabbit, and the political intrigue of the Empress. Frequently Rabbit’s soliloquies end with “do you understand,” giving it the feel of a traditional oral story that has ritual refrains (it turns out that Vo started part of it as a poem). One of it’s major challenges stems from this very format, however. Unlike Bridge of Birds, which lives the folklore-like tales, one never really forgets the story is once-removed. It is also told from the perspective of Rabbit, who is a village girl who was given to the government in lieu of enough tax, and only comes indirectly to the politics of the court. Is the story about Rabbit or the Empress? If it’s about the Empress, we’re only part of the politics twice-removed, so the emotional impact will likely be missing for many. I suspect Vo is actually telling the story about Rabbit, and that period when her seemingly ordinary life intersected that of dynasty-makers.
It’s challenged, I think, by its ambition, and for me, there were too many rough transitions and not enough embedded context to make it flow quite as nicely as it could. I love the idea of the treasure-box of items stirring memories, but didn’t feel like it quite integrated. In a Locus Magazine piece, Vo says she came to it after a couple years volunteering at an art museum in Milwaukee. I also found myself struggling a bit with Chih’s pronouns being ‘they.’ The meaning of the third gender never becomes quite clear–I found myself wondering if it was a role related to being a monk, or a physical third-gender eunuch, as their presence was common in Chinese courts. I kept wondering if it was a representation choice on the part of Vo of modern society, or a representation of historical China. I’m not versed at all in Chinese history, but one of the interesting things I discovered is that Mandarin was/is ungendered, so perhaps this issue would not have been as obvious in an oral tradition. I felt, ultimately, like I was missing the mark as to intention, and not sure if it was my own Chinese-history deficits, or issues on the part of the story.
The language use is otherwise lovely. The themes are fantastic. I can see why this was both a Hugo and Locus nominee. A clever little piece, likely will read again, and I look forward to When Tiger Came Down the Mountain.