Chih is a simple cleric, tasked with their magical hoopoe, to chronicle the lives of the people around them. When they meet Rabbit, an older woman, together, they recall Rabbit’s journey and her life story as the handmaiden to Empress In-Yo. Each chapter reveals something new, something harrowing. Before the effect of each tale can settle in, Rabbit asked Chih “do you understand?”, urging them and the reader to read between the lines and understand the truth behind a history that was erased.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a near-epic tale, all condensed into a hundred pages. As Chih sorts through the home, Rabbit recounts her story. Her being given up by her own people to joining the Empress in a game of loyalty, assassinations, and fortune tellings will ultimately topple an empire. In-Yo was brought to the court in a marriage of alliance, and it becomes clear, she would not go as expected. When her child is ripped from her hands, her people murdered and thrown out their land; Empress In-yo turns to the oppressed. She finds strength and power in what people chose to overlook and uses that to her advantage. These people have a story as well, and if you’re patient enough, you can hear it in all its glory.
There is a subtlety in how Nghi Vo writes that takes your breath away with so little words. A world unfolds with every new discovery Chih uncovers at the estate, leading to a new story, a new piece to the former Empress in her rise and fall, her exile and rebellion. These characters rarely stay a chapter, but their emotional impact resonates until the very end. Chih’s present with Rabbit’s past is a story of hidden history finally coming to light. The way Vo forms the conversation is immersive and elegant. A story that feels like a fairytale.
The term quiet fantasy was only made known to me last year, and I’ve been somewhat fascinated with finding books that fall under that category. And The Empress of Salt and Fortune hits every mark. In such little space, Vo has constructed a fantasy tale that is graceful and poignant. A forever recommendation.