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The Singing Hills Cycle #1

The Empress of Salt and Fortune

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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Fantasy (2020)
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.

121 pages, Paperback

First published March 24, 2020

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About the author

Nghi Vo is the author of the acclaimed novellas The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain. Born in Illinois, she now lives on the shores of Lake Michigan. She believes in the ritual of lipstick, the power of stories, and the right to change your mind. The Chosen and the Beautiful is her debut novel.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 5,180 reviews
Profile Image for chai ♡.
321 reviews153k followers
November 7, 2022
In The Empress of Salt and Fortune, dust lays in thick motes on the history of Lake Scarlet, a soft blanket of years draped over old truths and forgotten secrets. But Chih, a cleric from Singing Hills traveling in search of stories, is here to disturb them.

On the road, Chih meets an elderly woman named Rabbit and she tells them of the story of the exiled Empress In-Yo, whom Rabbit served loyally as a handmaiden. In-Yo, as the tale goes (or, at least, as Rabbit tells it) was brought to court for a marriage of alliance and expected to curl into her good-wife place like a loyal hound at her master’s feet. But In-Yo had been called to greater things, and if she had once carried within her some part of her that was capable of singing and nurturing and loving, it was culled down to animate what was left: the rage and vengeance and awfulness. The world had cycled through endless permutations of In-Yo’s story. They built a sustainable catalog of half-lies, altering truths to appease the living, but Rabbit’s “allegiance lies with the dead, and no matter what the clerics say, the dead care for very little.”

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a gorgeous book, a graceful and incandescent story like no other. I have never felt more reluctant to turn the last page, needing to stay in this place where I could believe in magic and story keepers and memories that extend backward through time’s infinite doorways.

At only a little over 100 pages, this is a slender story, and yet, remarkably, Nghi Vo carries a great deal with her in its pages: beauty, horror, wonder, and a searing paean to the power of story. In The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Vo turns her attention to the kinds of characters and conflicts that are too often find sidelined in such stories—and she does it to unforgettable effect. This is “the story under the story,” once shrouded and entombed now working itself free, as if slowly rising out of the ruins of a collapsed house after an earthquake, and carving a space where it can beat again. Through flashbacks, meditations and stories within stories, Vo takes us deeper into a world of strife, where wars are won by fierce women raised by angry mothers, and history outlasts all the silences and erasures.

There’s a sense in Vo’s novella of a handful of fully realized novels, all circling each other, each character standing at the beginning of another fantastical story. I hope Vo never stops writing in this world, because I would follow them anywhere.
Profile Image for Lisa of Troy.
403 reviews3,541 followers
March 19, 2023
“Sometimes the things we see do not make sense until many years have gone by. Sometimes it takes generations.”

When I asked for short book recommendations, my underground book club suggested The Empress of Salt and Fortune. This book didn’t disappoint! I had no idea that this author wrote The Chosen and The Beautiful (which I also read and loved).

Two birds, Cleric Chih and Almost Brilliant, are traveling in the Lake Scarlet area when information regarding the reign of Empress In-yo becomes declassified. They meet with Empress In-yo’s former serving girl named Rabbit. Rabbit then proceeds to share her stories of Empress In-yo.

This novella has some fantasy, some strong prose, and it feels non-American, not conforming to the standard American storylines. The Empress of Salt and Fortune delivered beautiful quotes and is a perfect blend of fantasy and women’s literature. It had depth and rich symbolism with strong, smart female characters. This short story had a unique feel, and the author, Vo, has a very diverse and varied vocabulary. There were a few words that had me reaching for my dictionary.

Already, I am looking forward to reading this book again.

Here are some of my favorite quotes.

Do you understand? “I am not sure I do, grandmother, but I listen, and Almost Brilliant will remember.”

Accuracy above all things. You will never remember the great if you do not remember the small.

2023 Reading Schedule
Jan Alice in Wonderland
Feb Notes from a Small Island
Mar Cloud Atlas
Apr On the Road
May The Color Purple
Jun Bleak House
Jul Bridget Jones’s Diary
Aug Anna Karenina
Sep The Secret History
Oct Brave New World
Nov A Confederacy of Dunces
Dec The Count of Monte Cristo

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Profile Image for Emily May.
1,964 reviews294k followers
January 12, 2021
“Angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves. I am not worried for her in the least.”

4 1/2 stars. I love discovering a writer who is doing such new and exciting things, and The Empress of Salt and Fortune introduced me to the most unique and fascinating world and mythos I've read in I don't even know how long. I can't wait to see what Nghi Vo does next.

I'm going to keep my comments brief as this is a novella and I don't want to give away too much of such a short book. However, I do have to say that I don't feel like I just read a 130-page book. The world-building is so rich and complex that it felt like I'd spent centuries in this universe (in a good way). It's quite something that the author manages to drop us right into this completely unfamiliar landscape and make it feel timeless, like you can truly believe this world and its customs have existed since... well, the beginning of time.

There's politics, history, and cultural traditions in here, all wrapped up in a ferociously feminist condemnation of patriarchy and empire. And it is beautifully-written. The author has a wonderful way of storytelling through imagery, darkly dramatic turns of phrase, and a touch of wit. I think I'm in love.

I also really loved how the main story is framed within a discussion between Cleric Chih - who is there to record history - and Rabbit, a former handmaiden to the empress. Rabbit gradually reveals past events in ever more intriguing tidbits, asking Chih constantly "do you understand?" As we soon see, her story which seems simple is anything but.

This might be a 5-star for me, I'm going to think about it some more. I adored it, and perhaps my only complaint is that it isn't longer.
Profile Image for Lala BooksandLala.
500 reviews62.1k followers
April 4, 2020
My favourite book I read in March! 🙌Book 27 of 30 for my 30 day reading challenge. Empress of Salt and Fortune was this remarkable little tale told by an elderly woman named Rabbit. We have a cleric named Chi (they/them) and their hoopoe Almost Brilliant who are listening to the story of the Empress In-Yo, who had Rabbit as a handmaiden during the time when she was married into an alliance, and then exiled. Nghi Vo delivers a deeply moving, atmospheric story of feminism, resilience, and rebellion, steeped with culture and mythology, featuring a queer cast. Truly, what more could you want?

Profile Image for Yun.
513 reviews20k followers
May 30, 2022
Honestly, this was just okay. It's clear I've missed what everyone else loves about it. And that's mostly due to the fact that I'm not sure I understood half of it.

This is a much-loved book, so before you come at me with pitchforks and tell me how I just don't get it, I know. That's what I'm trying to say here.

The writing style is flowery and dreamlike, focusing more on imagery and descriptions than on being clear. The same can be said about the worldbuilding, as if it had all happened elsewhere and we're just dropped in the middle of the narrative. It almost reads as if this is the companion book to an already established universe rather than the first novella of a series in its own right.

There are a lot of characters in here, especially when you consider how short this story is. But we don't really get to know any of them. The narrative always feels like it's coming from a distance, looking in rather than being inside the story. So even after having read it, I don't get a sense of who the characters truly are.

The unfolding of the narrative is rather disjointed, with lots of jumping around. It feels more like a series of separate little vignettes rather than a coherent whole that builds up to something. Lots of points are brought up, then never really explained. Even the ending, which is my favorite part, didn't really emerge from what was there before so much as it came out of nowhere.

All this contributes to a feeling of vague confusion that followed me throughout the whole story. I know many readers don't mind or even enjoy that narrative style, but it isn't for me. I only enjoy ambiguity when it's plot-based, so that it drives the story along and will be explained by the end. I don't like ambiguity when it's due to the writing style, because then it doesn't add anything and can be easily fixed by being just a little bit more clear.

I settled on 3 stars in the end because it's a novella and I don't feel like I wasted my time giving it a try. The ending was satisfying and at least added some clarity, though I wish the rest of it actually built up to it. But I'll be honest, if this was a full-length novel, I probably would've given it only 2 stars.

Obviously, I had high expectations going in, and in hindsight, they were too high. I had heard nothing but great things about both this novella and the author. But this is simply a case of mismatch between what I enjoy and what this story is. Many other readers loved it, so don't let me dissuade you from giving it a try.
Profile Image for emma.
1,825 reviews48.6k followers
December 14, 2022
This is a short book but it sits heavy.

It stays with you.

It makes its pages count.

It has amazing themes of monarchy and empire and colonization.

Just as fun but in a different way, it has fortune-telling! Feminism! General badassery! Things there should be more of in life and in books because I love them and that's reason enough!

It's beautifully written with sapphic subplots and a nonbinary protagonist!

It has that amazing thing that high fantasy does sometimes where it has its own creatures and foods and culture! I am so immersed and I love it and I never want to leave!

I knew from Nghi Vo's other book that she was doing one of a kind things, but I still wasn't prepared for this.

Where do we even go from here.

Bottom line: I feel like I just spent so much more than 130 pages in this world.

currently -reading updates

books living up to the goodreads hype? whatever. who cares.

books living up to your own mental hype? AHHHHHH

tbr review

do you know how good an adult fantasy novel has to sound for me to add it immediately?

the answer is very.
Profile Image for Nataliya.
745 reviews11.9k followers
December 19, 2021
“You will never remember the great if you do not remember the small.”
But who’s to tell what is great and what is small? The tempting part is to assign the greatness to those in power, those accidentally born under a lucky star, in a world of privilege by birth, or those that are uncompromising and ruthless enough to either hold on to the power or wrestle it from the others. By this definition, everyone and everything else is the small, meant to be left at the sidelines of history, meant to provide loyalty and support and service — and, of course, unquestioning sacrifice to the greats.

And that’s the way of the world and yet heartbreaking.
“Being close to her was like being warmed by a bonfire, and I had been cold for a long time.”

This wonderful, slow yet tight novella is about those in power and those who are “the small” — but on two very different levels. An exiled Empress In-yo who comes from the land of the subdued enemy to the empire, thrown out into glorified prison of exile after providing an heir and thus fulfilling her intended purpose —but far from being an invisible member of the “silenced and nameless women” she orchestrates a spectacular and elegant power grab, showing cunning and forethought and appropriate for future admired ruler determined ruthlessness. And the teller of her story, a servant woman nicknamed Rabbit who’s supposedly invisible and inconsequential not only because she’s a woman but also because she’s a social zero, being of peasant stock. While In-yo rises to power, Rabbit is there to support and love — and faithfully serve. Because in every admirable story of rise to power there is a story of quiet suffering and sacrifice. Because every dashing throne grab of the great is built on the foundations of labor and sacrifice of the small.
“Angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves. I am not worried for her in the least.”

And it reminds me yet again that those “silent and nameless” ones in their rise to power often have to trample and use other “silent and nameless” ones, and yet we can’t help but love and admire them in a very human and heartbreaking way because they triumph where we wish we could, destroy the chains we want gone, and orchestrate rise and fall of empires despite having been dismissed as nothing, not a threat. It’s not a story of hero worship but a story of loving and caring despite the pain, for reasons that may or may not make sense — but truth, while it may hurt, needs to be told. Because fairness and justice and revenge are only possible to a point, and tend to be more of the prerogative of the supposed “greats”.

Empires aren’t fair or just, and that leaves so much bittersweet aftertaste.
“This information could tarnish her memory beyond repair, unseat everything that she spent her life working for. And you are telling it to me, painful as it is for you. Why?”

“In-yo is gone now. So are Phuong, my parents, and Sukai. My allegiance lies with the dead, and no matter what the clerics say, the dead care for very little.”


This novella is a perfect example of how to create an engaging story and a wonderfully developed world in a short compact space. The worldbuilding is exquisite, and every small detail is important, adding to the rich complexity and creating a book that is a quiet pleasure to experience. It’s very quiet and subdued and delicate and yet in that lies its strength. The pacing is pitch-perfect, and the language is beautiful, evocative and yet not artificially ornamental. And, unlike many of the recent stories that explore similar themes, this one has enough subtlety to be quite satisfying. What is said and what is left unsaid seems equally important, and that’s a real skill to do right.

We are thrown into this world with little hand-holding, but to a careful reader that’s not an obstacle. Just roll with it for a few pages, and the world will reveal itself. But you must read it carefully — when I dozed off reading it before bed after a long hard day, I realized I have to read it again from the beginning, really paying attention — and it paid off, showing the power of memory and the power of myths we build.

It’s a wonderful story, a great example of a novella done just right.

4.5 stars.
“It is trash, and where I come from, we burn trash.”
Rabbit looked startled, and then she nodded.
“Yes. We do that here as well.”

Hugo Award winner for best novella. It deserved the win.


My Hugo and Nebula Awards Reading Project 2021: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Profile Image for Melanie.
1,172 reviews98.2k followers
January 2, 2022
oh, such a powerful first read of 2022 !!

“Being close to her was like being warmed by a bonfire, and I had been cold for a long time.”

impactful, lyrical, and so so so powerful. truly a masterpeice of a novella and the story is told in my absolute favorite way - where we get to see a character be told the story alongside the reader. the memories were beautiful and haunting and everything in-between. and the last line had me gasping for air! truly i loved this with my whole heart, and lake scarlet is now one of my favorite settings in literature.

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Profile Image for carol..
1,538 reviews7,881 followers
October 29, 2021
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.

Reference links with the blog post: https://clsiewert.wordpress.com/2021/...
Profile Image for s.penkevich.
857 reviews5,910 followers
June 12, 2022
the war was won by silenced and nameless women.’

Napoleon once said ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?.’ Empires rise and fall, people pass through the world, and all of it leaves behind a story and, if we are to believe in truth, we must discover how to responsibly tell these stories. And for what purpose. Thriving Fortune, the site where an empress spent her captivity in exile in Nghi Vo’s debut novella The Empress of Salt and Fortune, has a wealth of stories settling in the dust and decay and Chih--a cleric--has arrived to catalog the history. Vo astonishes with a fully formed political landscape modeled on imperial China that stretches out far beyond the short 120pgs that house this story. That so much can be achieved and give way to a wealth of history and imagination in such a succinct and finely tuned story is cause alone for celebration and the power and poetry of her words pluck each string in beautifully orchestrated storytelling. This is a miniature epic full of betrayal and loyalty, shadowy dealings, assassinations, and, ultimately, destruction of an empire in a feminist fable that addresses how what is often overlooked can still retain a power to be the great undoing of the oppressors.

Submission but only to the truth.

There are so many wonderful elements to this tiny epic that is hard to know where to begin praising it. The plot is simple yet cloaked in intrigue. It is told through a weaving of two timelines: Chih, the non-binary cleric, in the present as they listen to the past told by Rabbit, the Empress’ trusted companion. Chih has been taught to capture history much like a hunter, waiting patiently for it to come out in tale as she catalogs all the belongings found in Thriving Fortune. Rabbit comes from an impoverished upbringing and is retained in indentured servitude to the Emperor as a handmaiden when her family is short on payment of goods, and becomes the Empress’ personal companion when she is thrown into exile after giving birth to an heir. Having come from the north, a land considered to be ruled by “savages”, her marriage to the Emperor was meant to be a treaty of peace but becomes an opportunity for violent imperialism when his bloodline merges with that of the north and he sends his army in for a swift and bloody occupation of their land.

Revolutions are the locomotives of history.
-- Karl Marx

In keeping with the cloak-and-dagger aspects of the story, it is delivered in cleverly ambiguous prose that must be deciphered to get to the heart of its tale. Nothing is overt yet everything is laid bare. ‘Do you understand?’ Rabbit asks at the end of many of her memories, urging Chih to read between the lines and discover the truth. The stories of the Empress have taken on a mythology of their own and the truth. ‘History,’ wrote Napoleon Bonaparte, ‘is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.’ Chih has been sent to decode the popular narrative and find what hides within it. ‘‘The history in our archives could topple every throne in the world,’ they warn, though Rabbit is eager to provide an uncensored account if only Chih can be patient and let it be told on Rabbit’s own terms ‘My allegiance lies with the dead,’ Rabbit admits, ‘and no matter what the clerics say, the dead care very little.’ What emerges is a tragic story of betrayal, love lost, revolution and the dawning of a new Dynasty.

Angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight the wolves.;

Empowering what is often overlooked is central to the story and symbolism. Most predominantly is the way a patriarchal society overlooks and dehumanizes women, even ones that are ‘a step away from divinity’ such as the Empress. There is also the intersectionality that she is a foreigner and wears the robes of ‘savages’ so when it comes as no surprise when her only purpose had been to beget an heir and then be discarded to Thriving Fortune. In her book Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger, gender activist Soraya Chemaly writes that
every girl learns, in varying degrees, to filter herself through messages of women's relative cultural irrelevance, powerlessness, and comparative worthlessness.

Much like Audre Lorde who wrote on embracing rage to fight against racism, she posits that the natural reaction to this is rage and that it can be a helpful tool in overcoming and dismantling these patriarchal norms. The Empress channels her rage into a productive undertaking to dismantle the patriarchal society that not only stripped her of her child at birth but slaughtered her people and annexed their land. Much of this goes undetected due to her clever and subversive tactics but simply because she is a woman and not to be concerned over. ‘A society that does not respect women’s anger, Chemaly writes, ‘is one that does not respect women—not as human beings, thinkers, knowers, active participants, or citizens.’ This disrespect becomes a blind spot for the Empress to exploit.

The Empress understand the strength in what is overlooked and uses it in many ways. She has long been mocked for her familiarity with fortune tellers, who are of low status in the society even when called upon by the dominant class. However, their vagabond nature and invisibility in society while co-mingling with all classes make them the perfect eyes and ears for an Empress in exile who wishes to send messages in secrecy. Astrology, too, and its star charts become a way to send innocuous coded messages around the empire. There is a delicate subtlety in the way objects become symbols much larger than themselves and have their own stories to tell, if only one is patient enough and willing to look within them.

'The reason why China suffers bitterly from endless wars is because of the existence of feudal lords and kings.'
- Emperor Qin Shi Huang

A lot happens for such a short novel. V.I. Lenin once wrote that ‘there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen,’ and the same could be said about Vo’s well-executed pacing of this book. Much of the book slowly builds through passages where it seems nothing much is happening while still feeling like it is reaching towards some obfuscated purposes and then suddenly a wealth of actions and realizations will blossom in only a few short sentences. The course of history in the region is forever altered, Dynasties are snuffed out as new ones take their place and many secrets are revealed, all bestowed upon Chih who has an oath to record the truth. What they do with the knowledge they receive is only for the reader to theorize, but as the novella concludes the reader is sure to feel satisfied with this blistering feminist condemnation of patriarchal empire and imperialism. Vo has constructed a rich low-key fantasy world and one can only hope it is a place we will return to in future novels.


The abbey at Singing Hills would say that if a record cannot be perfect, it should at least be present. Better for it to exist than for it to be perfect and only in your mind.
Profile Image for Boston.
405 reviews1,851 followers
April 8, 2020
This book doesn’t make you feel things you can put into words. It makes you feel things that only you can feel and only you can comprehend. And I mean this in the best way possible.
Profile Image for aly ☆彡 (sick).
346 reviews1,049 followers
December 16, 2022
“Angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves.”

Nghi Vo's captivating novella The Empress of Salt and Fortune, which incorporates elements of Chinese mythology and history, harkens back to the patriarchal architects of myth and power. This stirring debut novel recounts the ascension of the empress In-yo and is at once a feminist high fantasy and a critique of the monarchy.

In just a few pages, Vo creates an incredibly delightful universe. The confessions of In-yo are filled with cunningly sneaky rebellion, the frame tale of Chih and Rabbit is subtly revolutionary. This novella shines and unites to form the brilliant jewel that it is. I can understand why this book is a sensation.

However, as much as congenial the universe was created, the world-building is especially disappointing for work in a fantasy genre. The world of Vo is meant to be one of diversity, with competing kingdoms and empires. Unfortunately, Vo doesn't provide readers with enough cultural cues to distinguish between these locations and their inhabitants, so in the end, they and their people are just names. Similarly, the political intrigues that give rise to the magical system's paucity of existence have little to do with magic, giving me second thoughts if this novella is the fantasy it sold as.

While I also do like the writing, it is also the most ornate, over-embellished, and flowery prose I have come to read. I like how it serves as multiple ideas but very often the most beautiful sentences are the most simple. This also steers me from conceptualizing the characters. They were not coherent enough and bogged down with very vague descriptions and idiosyncrasy which reaches too far but misses too much even though I kind of get what kind of representation is Vo going with this direction.

At the end of the day, it is down to one's preferences. This book could be ceremonious to some but I would not say it suffuses me as it was with others. It will pay the reader to read this slowly to get the story latch on as this is a "show not tell" kind of story. Well, I could be impatient sometimes, so this book is fair to middling for me.
Profile Image for Hamad.
1,012 reviews1,332 followers
May 22, 2023
I am keeping this short: I was confused most of the time, the writing was great but I finished while still trying to connect to the characters and story. I felt it was a bit choppy and disjointed. Still a fast feminist short story if you want one.
Profile Image for Charlotte Kersten.
Author 3 books433 followers
February 6, 2022
“Angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves.”

So What’s It About?

A young royal from the far north is sent south for a political marriage. Alone and sometimes reviled, she has only her servants on her side. This evocative debut chronicles her rise to power through the eyes of her handmaiden, at once feminist high fantasy and a thrilling indictment of monarchy.

What I Thought

I’ve been reading more novellas recently than I ever have in my life, and so far this is my absolute favorite of the bunch. I love everything about it – the graceful writing, the fierce feminism, the stories-within-stories device with epigraphs and memories tied to specific objects, the deep bond between Rabbit and In-Yo.

It’s the story of how history is made as empires subsume nations and are subverted in turn; it’s a story about the power of controlling narratives and truths. In it a “savage” woman is married off, denigrated, overlooked and dismissed and yet she champions this and rises to power nonetheless. Her story intertwines with the stories of other discarded women like Rabbit and Kazu, some of whom are lost to history and others of whom live on to control their narratives. In-Yo says that “the war was won by silenced and nameless women” and this is what we see in The Empress of Salt and Fortune.

It doesn’t escape my notice that these silenced and ignoble women plan their revolution through derided, uncouth forms of knowledge like fortune telling, or that In-Yo gathers allies for her rebellion over the course of her fake pilgrimage, pretending at piety and conformity to her new home. In addition, the North defies expectations by using a code of the conqueror’s language instead of their own. Again and again expectations are subverted and the rebels use the tools of their oppressors against them.

I more or less devoured this in one sitting and I can’t wait to read the next novella. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.
Profile Image for Ashleigh (a frolic through fiction).
453 reviews6,974 followers
April 3, 2021
Such a beautiful short story - I don’t know how else to describe it other than saying everything seemed so heartfelt. It read like a fairytale in it’s found meaning through brutality, and even in the story structure with repeated phrases of “do you understand now?” The threats of the political structures were indicated clearly, and quickly, without being diminished. An impressive short story, and one I can imagine myself returning to.
Profile Image for may ➹.
481 reviews1,957 followers
December 21, 2020
I’m going to be honest, I think my brain was too fried from finals to comprehend this properly, but I still liked it!! leaving it unrated for now but I thought the storytelling was unique, and I loved the way everything slowly unraveled. I enjoyed the writing; I appreciate how the book trusts the reader (it doesn’t outright tell you everything that happens and leaves it up to you to figure out), though at times it might not have worked for me because I didn’t have the brain cells. overall, a well-told story unlike any I’ve read before, and I can’t wait to read the sequel
Profile Image for Katie Colson.
653 reviews5,826 followers
March 8, 2022
I tried reading this physically. Couldn't wrap my brain around it. Soft dnf-ed it. Picked up the audiobook a month later and listened to the entire thing and still don't get it.

I had someone explain it to me and I realized that this writing style isn't for me and was never going to be. I'm not going to rate this because if I'd known what the writing style was going in, I would have known I'd hate it. Which is a disservice to the book. It just isn't for me. And that's okay.
Profile Image for jade.
489 reviews291 followers
March 18, 2021
“angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves.”

a story about a nonbinary monk looking to expand the annals of history, and the elderly lady who gives them a tale they will never forget.

… whew, this one got me and it got me good. i read it so fast it nearly gave me whiplash, then instantly reread it, and i cried both times. because this is a hidden story, a tale so easily evaporated and forgotten, told in wisps of rumor and the remnants of broken things, but i had the privilege of watching it unfold on paper almost wholly.

chih, alongside their magical talking hoopoe companion, wants to chronicle the full history of the empress of salt and fortune. so once a former estate of hers opens to visitors, they travel there, finding a home loaded with dust as well as various items, from clothes to star charts and playing cards.

and they also find a kind, elderly woman named rabbit, who seems to have known the empress quite well.

every chapter opens with the description of several items that chih uncovers at the estate, and then leads into rabbit sharing the story behind those items from a first person perspective. and through rabbit’s stories, the figure of the foreign princess and former empress in-yo becomes more clear: as do her exile, her quiet rebellion, and the subsequent rise and fall of an empire.

i instantly connected to the characters in this story and that made the emotional impact all the greater. the worldbuilding seems very much inspired by southeast asian culture/history, insomuch that this story feels like it could’ve been real. that it actually could’ve happened. it makes the whole thing feel uniquely grounded despite it being fantasy.

while i was, at first, unsure about its framing device it does fit very much with the tone and message of this story: that of hidden tales, of quiet resistance, and of playing the system by making things seem like something they’re not. though chih as a person might be less interesting than rabbit or any of the people in her story, what they and their order represent is a great thematic fit.

literally the only thing i could possibly complain about is its length. the story of in-yo is absolutely fascinating, and we glimpse it only in fragments through rabbit’s eyes. though it is great as a novella, there is no doubt in my mind that it would’ve been amazing as a full length novel, too.

anyway, read this novella if the hidden, personal stories behind the great events in history make you feel both curious and wistful. it’ll no doubt give you a great experience, with feminist themes and great relationships as the cherry on top!

5.0 stars.
Profile Image for Tatiana.
1,401 reviews11.7k followers
January 5, 2021
This is an example of what a good novella is - rich in background and character development, complex in story telling, beautifully written.

Excited to read more from Nghi Vo
Profile Image for Bookishrealm.
1,909 reviews4,818 followers
March 25, 2023
WHY OH WHY DID I TAKE SO LONG TO READ THIS?!? I should have listened when ya'll told me that this book was amazing. Definitely one of my top books of the year.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is the first book in The Singing Hills Cycle. Readers follow Chih, a keeper of memories/history/stories, when they come into contact with Rabbit, a former hand maiden of the Empress In-Yo. What follows is not only a complex and beautiful tale about the complexities of memories and relationships, but also one that is feminist through and through and showcases a woman scorned determined to take back the power once stripped from her.

What Worked: EVERYTHING! There have only been a few novels this year that have felt perfect in every way and this book easily falls into that category. Not only are we, as readers, exposed to beautiful and glorious writing, but a novella that challenges the patriarchy. Empress In-Yo is inevitably used as a political pawn, stripped of her power, and discarded. As readers we're initially like Chih; we're at the beck and call of Rabbit's retelling of the story patiently waiting as we're constantly asked "do you understand?" For me, personally, I didn't piece together the connection between all individuals involved until the end. And it was an emotional ending addressing not only the flaws, but also the goodness that exists in the Empress. Their relationship is complicated as both the Empress and Rabbit recognize the gap that is created due to status and wealth differences, yet Rabbit has a fierce loyalty to her that is maintained after death. This is evident is Rabbit's proclamation that she is only loyal to the dead. It is in this that Rabbit, who has sacrificed so much, becomes the center of the narrative when readers assume her to simply be a side character at the beginning. Steeped in beautiful and rich culture, this is one I wish I could experience for the first time again. Nghi Vo is absolutely brilliant and creates such a complex narrative in such a short amount of time. I'm excited to continue on with the rest of the series.
Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,880 reviews22.7k followers
April 21, 2021
4.5 stars. Elegantly written Asian-inspired fantasy novella, nominated for a Hugo award, that was far, far better than I expected.

A traveling NB cleric, Chih, makes their way to an isolated villa where the empress In-Yo, who recently died, once lived in exile. Now, many years later, it's inhabited only by the empress's now-elderly servant, called Rabbit. While Chih examines the old records and artifacts, Rabbit gradually unfolds the story of In-Yo to Chih and their talking hoopoe bird companion. She was a princess from a northern kingdom that lost a war, and was given away in marriage (read: hostage) to the southern empire, one of the many wives of the emperor. But In-Yo isn't quite as helpless and accepting of her fate as she might at first seem.

I have to admit I got an ARC of this book last year and it joined the stack of "maybe-read" unrequested ARCs, partly because — true confessions here — I'm getting a little tired of the endless focus on angry-feminist/queer-character fantasy. Some of it's good, but a lot of it is message fiction and I'm not into being preached at in my fictional reading. But when it made the list of Hugo nominees, I dusted off my copy and jumped into it. And ended up seriously enjoying it! Nghi Vo's writing is lovely and evocative, and there's a lot going on under the surface with both the characters and the plot. It's like a delightful puzzle box.

Full review to come. Thanks to Tor for the ARC!
Profile Image for Elle (ellexamines).
1,084 reviews17.5k followers
January 9, 2023
It was beautiful, but every stitch bites into her history, the deaths she left behind, and the home she could not refer to.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune follows Rabbit the Handmaiden she tells a narrative of the empress In-Yo to Chih, a Cleric keeper of memories, and Almost Brilliant, a bird and a scribe of memories.

There are several things to love about this novella, including the gorgeous writing and wonderful characters, but primary to it is its treatment of the complexities of history and memory. The empress erased memories of her own life, leaving Rabbit as the only memory. It is thus in her telling that the Empress’s cruelty comes, but also in that her humanity is extracted.

The humanity of those around her does not go unmarked, either. Servant Kazu and fortuneteller Sukai (Lucky) are each unimportant, but remembered by Almost Brilliant nonetheless. There is a passage about burning trash that specifically made me tear up; it was really beautiful.

This novella touched me so deeply and I’m sure I’ll find myself returning to it again in the future. I’m excited to read the rest of this series.

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Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 6 books3,977 followers
February 9, 2020
I'm always on the lookout for writers who are getting people excited, and this one graced my radar several times before I was able to grab her on Netgalley.

This one has some really cool setting descriptions (evocative and colorful), excellent use of object descriptions (telling very understated stories that branch much deeper than first implications), and some very cool points of subtlety in the telling of a much larger story.

In a nutshell, we hear the story of an exiled princess in a Chinese-like high-fantasy dynasty and we see how she got power in a male-dominated world. But again, the story is subtle and prefers to keep a mild face throughout.

I enjoyed all of this quite a bit.

There are also some pretty wonderful non-binary characters, but it's not like we should judge this novella based on whether it is non-binary or LGBTQ...


Let me be honest. This novella is not that new. I've read some rather wonderful Guy Gavriel Kay novels recently that is just as evocative, set in similar situations, with as much High Fantasy ethos, culture, and it punched me with many subtle punches. I felt for both the females and the males. LGBTQ and straights.

Kim Stanley Robinson has also pulled off something as wonderful in Years of Rice and Salt.

I can probably rattle off half a dozen shorter works from the last two years alone and more than two dozen LGBTQ novellas that are coming nearly exclusively from several notable venues, all of which tout that we're FINALLY getting LGBTQ stories... and yet it almost feels like EVERY story I read that is published today is ONLY LGBTQ.

Am I a hater?

Hell no. But let's put it this way: if any market is glutted with a particular agenda, then one cannot accurately say that they're FINALLY getting a voice. Back around 2000, it was unusual. Now? Well, out of every recent modern book I've read, approximately 9/10 are LGBTQ. When did diversity come to mean exclusivity?

And if you ask why I'm bringing this up here and now, I want to be clear that I'm not coming down on the author. I'm going to read more of her work. The finger I'm pointing at is the industry and the fans who stoke their own anger at society by removing equality from the playing field in the name of diversity and then come back to tell us all that things have been unfair for far too long.

I have a very strong sense of fairness. This isn't the author's fault. I suppose I'm drowning a bit in the fact that there is LGBTQ everywhere I look.

That being said, returning to this novella, I really DID enjoy it, but there is already a lot of SilkPunk out here. This one is one of the more subtle of the breed but it isn't all that original. It stands on the shoulders of many previous storytellers.
Profile Image for Althea ☾.
623 reviews1,952 followers
December 9, 2021
Nghi Vo's writing style. I love it. That's it.

This whole book was so calming to read and I still don't know the reason why.

One of my favorite things about short stories is when they are able to pack so many themes and world building in to a small package. AND THIS WAS THAT. It’s basically a story within a story as the narrator is telling a tale to a certain character within the book itself. I will forever be terrible at summarizing short stories because I always feel like anything I say is a spoiler.

It was so rich in chinese/asian culture that you would be able to feel in the writing even if you were not initially aware of it. The author was able to translate her emotions so strongly within the plot that it was bursting with life. You have no idea how thrilled I am that this is a series because it is exactly my type of storytelling... and I need more.

Don't you just love it when a cover matches the tone of the book so well? The artistic, light, flowery-feeling that the cover is giving off is exactly the mood of the story.

Definitely a book that you find me recommending to people just because of how much it allowed me to appreciate that much more the importance of diverse literature in telling stories that needs to be told.

I want to tell you what I did not like about this book as to why it wasn't a 5 star, but I really can't.

Read for an empowering and heartfelt story that takes on a modern handmaid's tale (so as they say). If you're still looking for the perfect book to start your 2021, highly recommend trying this out. A short story that will truly warm your ice cold heart and feels like it's taking you on an adventure in to a rabbit hole.

““How do you live with it watching you?”
“As you live with anything I suspect, you bear it or you end it.”

With my mouth stuffed with mushroom, I didn’t say that you could also find the beauty in it.”

— 3.5 —
trigger warnings// forced sterilization, abortion (implied)

chat with me on ⤳ instagram
Profile Image for Acqua.
536 reviews190 followers
April 5, 2020
Empress of Salt and Fortune is the best example of quiet fantasy I know. It's a story about a revolution, about the upheaval of an empire, the way many fantasy stories are - and yet it's unlike everything I've ever read. There isn't one fight scene, it's told decades after the events happened, and it relies so much on details and symbolism, as quiet fantasy does when it needs to talk about something not quiet at all.
It follows Chih (they/them), a cleric - who pretty much functions as a historian and archivist - and their nixin Almost Brilliant, a magical hoopoe, as they talk with Rabbit, an old woman who was once one of the Empress' servants.

This novella is split between Chih's present and Rabbit's past, and most chapters begin with an inventory. It's a story told through the history of objects as much as the history of people, as the small, mundane details have their own language, and this book understands that. This hidden language of symbols is an important thread running through the story, and it's tied to its main theme - the power that lies in what is overlooked. Like servants. Like exiled wives, as In-yo, the Empress of Salt and Fortune, was. Like the bonds women form with each other, and the way they support each others through hardships.

Because of its setup, this novella felt a lot like the mirror version of another queer Asian-inspired novella about devotion and revolution told in flashbacks I've read, The Ascent to Godhood (by the way, I would recommend this to all Tensorate fans). Unlike Ascent, however, it's all but a tragic villain story. Empress of Salt and Fortune is gentle, unhurried, and very short - and more powerful than a lot of fantasy trilogies.

Half of the reason this story is so memorable is the writing. It's never flowery and always sharp, almost minimalistic, so that what isn't said and is just left implied has just as much weight as what is written. The descriptions are short but incredibly vivid, as is true for everything in this book, to be honest. Even minor characters that only appear in flashbacks, like Mai and Yan Lian, are so well-drawn they jump off the page. And In-yo? She's already dead at the beginning of the story, but you could feel the power of her presence. The writing is that good.

Also, I loved the worldbuilding. It's deceptively simple, clear and never messy, and the amount of casual queerness - not only the worldbuilding isn't binarist, there are queer side characters too, which include In-yo - was amazing. Also, there are talking animals and people ride mammoths. How could I not love that.

Empress of Salt and Fortune is one of the best novellas I've ever read, now maybe even my favorite! I really look forward to reading what Nghi Vo will write in the future.
Profile Image for Tim.
476 reviews616 followers
November 17, 2020
On the back of the book, there is praise by Seanan McGuire. I won't quote her entire praise, just the last sentence. "I didn't know I needed to read this until I did." That sums up my entire opinion as well. 5/5 stars.

Longer version of the review: The first plot follows a traveling cleric named Chih, whose duty is to record history in all its forms. The cleric meets and older woman called Rabbit, who gives a history unrecorded about the empress of the title. Her name In-yo, she came from the far north seemingly little more than prize for the current emperor of the time. Her story is that of a women kept in a luxurious prison, and how she was able to gain a name of herself.

Both stories work well. Chih's is a world builders dream, giving you aspects of the setting that are unique, vague but telling. My mind wondered about the world itself and I wanted more of it early on, and when it was over I can honestly say I would read a dozen tales set in this world without a second thought. Rabbit's tale is slow moving, and much of what she doesn't says is important. It's like a puzzle box in a way, beautifully designed but holding more than she's seemingly saying. Once it all clicks, it makes the entire thing better as a whole.

I picked this up because it sounded fairly intriguing. I like Asian inspired fantasy settings, I like stories within story narratives and with very few exceptions, I typically really enjoy Tor.com's novellas. So, I pick it up and give it a quick read. A few hours later I realize I finished the book and am trying to find words to express what I just read.

It's been a day. I still don't have proper words. I know this isn't much of a review,and for that I apologize, but I can only try to explain something that is hard to fully express. The story while short, feels like if you've known someone for years (a friend, a parent, a grandparent imagine anyone you feel you know extremely well) and then over a series of conversations you find a revelation, you find they did something that just seems astounding to you. Something personal, something wonderful and now you have a new insight into the world.

That... doesn't make sense. I know that doesn't make sense, but that is the closest I can come to explaining how the book made me feel. This is without a doubt my favorite read of 2020, and while I know there is still over a month for that to change, I find it extraordinarily unlikely. This is as close to perfection as a read can get for me. A rare perfect 5/5 stars.
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 59 books8,147 followers
June 28, 2020
A really excellent novella set in an Asian-inspired alt world, with a touch of magic but mostly politics and conspiracy and fantastic feminist rage. Haunting, extraordinary, deeply compelling in a quietly building way. Really really good.
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews869 followers
September 2, 2022
“Angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves. I am not worried for her in the least.”

Q&A: Nghi Vo, Author of 'Empress of Salt and Fortune' | The Nerd Daily

Even without a lot of magic, Nghi Vo's The Empress of Salt and Fortune has a magical feeling to it. Instead, the novella is filled with political intrigue and some really good storytelling. I liked the characters, Cleric Chih and her accompanying talking hoopoe bird-assistant, Almost Brilliant, as well as the old peasant named Rabbit who tells them her story about the exiled empress. The Empress of Salt and Fortune is short but powerful and engaging. It is the first in a series (The Singing Hills Cycle), and my only complaint would be that it feels more like a prequel than the beginning of a series. Still, I really enjoyed this and would like to continue the series!
Profile Image for jenny✨.
563 reviews805 followers
July 18, 2020
This novella captures so much with seeming simplicity; I think that's the beauty of it.

I'm left suffused with wonder, and the feeling that I've just witnessed—like Chih—a piece of a nation's history, and more importantly, the love and loyalty of one simple woman who did not turn out to be so simple after all.
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