Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Nghi Vo’s novella The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a brief, bittersweet story about power, misogyny and the weight of history. Shortly after the death of the Empress In-yo, the cleric Chih, on their way to the capital to welcome the new empress, learns that the sites she had put under imperial lock have now been declassified. On a whim, they decide to turn aside to Lake Scarlet, the place where In-yo once lived in exile; there, they find Rabbit, In-yo’s old servant. While Chih works to index and record the contents of the house at Lake Scarlet (assisted by their assistant, the neixan Almost Brilliant), Rabbit tells them tales of the empress in her exile, a young bride from a neighbouring country discarded as soon as she had given the emperor a son. How does that lost castaway become the powerful and venerable Empress of Salt and Fortune?

Vo’s novella reminds me in some respects of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor: both texts are about young people, exiles, climbing to ultimate power in foreign courts. I think Vo’s book has more teeth, however, and more to say: whereas Addison’s novel is mostly concerned with the ways in which its protagonist strives to be a kind ruler – thereby obscuring the inherent cruelty of monarchical rule – Vo’s is fully aware of the ruthlessness In-yo must show to survive and thrive in her position, and of the sacrifices she must demand of her servants. In-yo says to Rabbit at a pivotal moment:

“I have taken everything from you. It is the nature of royalty, I am afraid, what we are bred for and what we are taught.”

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is also more formally ambitious than Addison’s novel: Rabbit is not a reliable narrator (unlike Addison’s third-person omniscient voice), she misdirects, leaves things unspoken and implied. This is, I think, a form of resistance to the sweep of history and thus of patriarchal power: by keeping parts of her relationship with In-yo hidden from Chih, the empire’s official archivist, Rabbit chooses to leave the historical record incomplete, troubling history’s claim to accuracy and authority.

Needless to say, this kind of thing is very much My Jam, and if it sounds like yours you should probably pick up The Empress of Salt and Fortune. It’s sharp enough and icy enough and of-the-moment enough that I’ll be surprised if it’s not on at least one awards ballot next year.

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