Review: 'Empress Of Salt And Fortune,' By Nghi VoNghi Vo's new novel is poised at the end of one empire and the beginning of another, as a cleric and their talking-bird assistant set about uncovering the dangerous secrets of a forgotten palace.
"Accuracy above all things. You will never remember the great if you do not remember the small."
What details are truly small? Who says they are? Ask yourself as you read The Empress of Salt and Fortune.
This book is not a happy ending book. This is a salt and fortune book: dangerous, subtle, unexpected and familiar, angry and ferocious and hopeful. Here, the truth is delicately, tenderly fished out of darkness. Ugliness is couched in exquisite poetry and the ordinary is finely-drawn; any object, however plain in purpose or silly in function, might be a relic of endurance and a witness to greatness. Nghi Vo's story of women and intrigue at the end of one empire and beginning of another reveals in flashes that what you think you see isn't all there is to see. It asks — and answers — the question: What is important? Who is important? Here, the old aphorism "all that glitters is not gold" is particularly apt.
Cleric Chih is on their way to the new Empress's first Dragon Court, accompanied by their assistant Almost Brilliant (a "neixin" or talking hoopoe with mythical, generational recall of history), when word comes that all sites put under imperial lock during the previous Empress In-Yo's reign have been declassified. Fortunately, they happen to be near Lake Scarlet, the haunted site of In-Yo's exile from court "before the mammoth trampled the lion."
They can't resist the chance to be first to uncover Lake Scarlet's secrets about this mysterious but important time in the empire's history, and are surprised to find the residence there, though locked down, hasn't been abandoned.
An old peasant woman called Rabbit, whose family owns an inn down the road, welcomes them, offering up the first of the site's secrets when she gives Chih its other name: Thriving Fortune — a bitter joke made by noble ladies exiled from the capital to pay attendance on the empress-in-exile, and clever given In-Yo's obsession with fortunetelling games. Like so many things in The Empress of Salt and Fortune, the name is more than it seems. Rabbit — who came to Thriving Fortune as part of Empress In-Yo's servant retinue and was privy to intimate details of her daily life — becomes an invaluable source of information for Chih and Almost Brilliant as they explore, excavating objects and discovering surprising truths about In-Yo's early reign.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a remarkable accomplishment of storytelling. As a reader, I felt thrilled to work on this historical puzzle with Chih and Almost Brilliant, and I felt glad to know these characters' stories. Here we observe the casual cruelty of power toward those believed to be second class and voiceless. Here we observe carelessness, and anger, and community. Here politics happen around and because of people adaptable because they have no other choice.
This is a book about women's and queer voices, about their importance in spite of — and in the face of — erasure. Be prepared for subtlety and grace, but also for pleasure, for a working class perspective on momentous events, for ghosts and damp pine boughs. There is no excessive gore, but there are raw moments of pain.
When I was writing this review, I went out to a coffee-shop-slash-bar, and took notes on the (very rewarding!) reread.
A stranger approached me, his body language that of someone trying to be nonthreatening.
"Forgive me," he said. "I'm just so curious about what you're doing. Your expression is so — you're really reacting!"
"I'm reviewing a book," I said, "and I'm just taking notes. It's very good!"
He replied, "I can tell. Your whole face keeps changing. It makes me want to read it."
It makes me want to read more by Nghi Vo. I hope The Empress of Salt and Fortune is the first of many novels.
Jessica P. Wick is a writer, freelance editor, and California native currently living in Rhode Island.