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Book Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo (Singing Hills Cycle #1)

Publication Date: March 24, 2020

***You can find my reviews of the other books in the Singing Hills Cycle here: When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain and Into the Riverlands.

Synopsis:

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.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is a gorgeous puzzle of a story, with the words spoken only the surface layer, hinting at what’s underneath. I loved it. It’s short enough to read comfortably in a sitting and sharp enough to make you sit and think. I look forward to the sequel.

Update 2022:

I love the structure of the story, with a cleric come to study and record for history an estate that has been locked for decades, and the deceptively simple old woman she meets there. As she moves through the house, discovering objects and recording their details, the old woman slowly reveals the history and significance of each, and along the way tells the empress’ story and her own, entrusting the cleric with the means to ruin not only herself and the previous empress, but the new empress as well – and many reasons not to do so.

Each time she finishes relating a tale or a portion of the history she asks, “Do you understand?” And slowly the cleric comes closer and closer to doing so. Brilliantly written all around.

This time I listened to the audio version and it was narrated beautifully. Even though it is a complicated story, I never felt lost as I listened. The narrator’s low, rather deep speaking voice gave the impression of someone relating secrets and gave the subject material more weight.

Favorite Quote:

“Save that anger,” Mai said with a sigh. “Angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves.”

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
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