Genre : Fantasy
Publisher : Tor.com
Length : 112 pages
Format : Audiobook
Rating : 5 stars
Publication Date: March 24th 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.
Chih and their magical companion Almost Brilliant travel the world to collect stories. The new empress is going to be crowned and imperial sites that were previously closed to the public are now open. Chih and Almost Brilliant see that as an opportunity to be the first to collect tales and information about the late empress but, when they arrive to the imperial summer residence, they are not the first on site. They meet Rabbit, one of the late empress’s servant and her confidante and Rabbit’s slowly begins to tell them stories about In-yo, the former empress.
It’s hard for me to convey how much I loved this little story. The Empress of Salt and Fortune is slow and quiet story about two women trying to survive in a world where people don’t want them to have any sort of agency. Rabbit is a lowborn girl sold at a very young age to become a royal servant and In-yo is the empress but she’s treating like a prisoner in her own empire because she’s from a neighboring country that is seen as not “civilized enough” compared to the Empire. However, once the two women meet, they learn a lot about each other and an unlikely friendship starts between the two women. Together, they are not just a barbarian and a servant, they are two powerful women in charge of their life.
I usually love reading stories about women working with each other so I knew I probably was going to enjoy this story but, Vo’s writing really brought the whole tale together. Her prose is simple yet poetic and I loved how Rabbit’s apparently disjointed anecdotes masterfully came together at the end to create a beautiful picture.
Chih’s mission is to collect stories but also to make an inventory of In-yo’s possession. Each chapter starts with a short and poetic description of a particular object or piece of clothing which prompts Rabbit to tell the stories behind each object described to Chih and Almost Brilliant. Object after object, we learn more about her and In-yo and, memories after memories, we learn about the mystery that links the two women until a particular point in the story where all the pieces come together giving an entire new perspective on Rabbit and In-yo’s story.
I listened to The Empress of Salt and Fortune on audio and I highly recommend this format for the story. The audiobook is narrated by Cindy Kay (it’s available on Scribd) and it was the perfect way to consume this story. Indeed, since Rabbit is telling Chih and their companion about her life, it suited the audio format perfectly and Kay’s narration was perfect for this story. I listened to the whole thing during an afternoon and it was such a comforting and peaceful experience!
In a lot of ways, The Empress of Salt and Fortune is similar to another of my favorite novellas, The Ascent to Godhood. Both stories are set in historical Asian settings and both stories are about women working together to rise to power. However, while the two stories have similarities, the way they are narrated, their structure and the worldbuilding are completely different so they are both completely worth your time! 😉