The Empress of Salt and Fortune, by Nghi Vo, is a surprising, compact story, taking place in an Asian-inspired fantasy setting. The story is lyrical and dense, a heartbreaking exploration of anger and love, and the lingering implications of history.
Chih is a cleric, sent from the abbey in Singing Hills to to witness the new empress’s first Dragon Court. On the way they stop at Lake Scarlet, where the recently deceased Empress of Salt and Fortune spent several years in exile, long ago. It has been inaccessible for years, and was only recently declassified after the death of Empress In-yo. When Chih gets there, they find an old woman, Rabbit, who knew the empress during her exile.
The reader gets to piece together the story along with Chih. We learn about Empress In-yo one story at a time, as Chih finds (and subsequently catalogs) various items within Lake Scarlet. Each chapter begins with a description of several related items, written up as if for a museum exhibit. These items stir Rabbit’s memories, and she tells the young cleric stories that slowly come together to reveal long-buried secrets.
The text reveals precious little context. Chih knows at least something of Empress In-yo and the political and social history of this world, but we readers are left to piece it together. I found this to be a brilliant stylistic choice, because my desire to figure it all out pulled me along even before I quite understood what sort of a story I was reading. But be warned that this is a story that makes you work, rather than spoon-feeding you the background as you go. It also rewards rereading, as the second time through reveals all of the threads that were so carefully set up in the beginning, but which you might have missed.
This story could have easily been told as a sprawling epic fantasy, but instead, Vo kept the focus laser tight, giving us tantalizingly glimpses of the broader world and cultures. It is the story of a woman sent away to political marriage, into a culture that despises and underestimates her. But she does not succumb to either despair or powerlessness.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is short, even for a novella. You could easily read it in one lazy evening, if you wanted to. That might even be the best way to experience this intense gem of a book. Whether you choose to read it all in one sitting, or spread out over a few days, I recommend giving it a chance. I promise you, it does all come together in the end, and it’s very much worth your while.