A short, engaging novella about imperialism and exclusion
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.
In this short novella, Vo introduces us to a handful of interesting and engaging characters, as one regales another with a story of imperialism and oppression. As the synopsis states, the world depicted is akin to imperial China, and the author has a gift for writing evocative, albeit-brief description. After meeting Rabbit, the emperor’s wife’s handmaid, Cleric Chih learns Empress In-yo’s story. Through this, we glean the larger picture of not only In-yo’s life, but also the world and culture in which all of the characters exists.
Despite its slim length, the author manages to include a lot into the narrative — through allusion, hints, and small details readers attain a very full picture of the world and the predicament of the characters. We learn about palace politics and cultural norms, and how those who run afoul of either are silenced and/or exiled. How one’s position is precarious, and one’s fortunes can turn on a dime at the whims of others.
It was a prison at first, because it always was one, a place where emperors could banish wives who no longer pleased. It was better than the executioners’ silk garrote, at least, though the emperor’s executioners could travel as well as anyone.
Vo’s characters are great. Whether curious or furious, they are brilliantly realized on the page. The author’s prose is evocative and flows very nicely, while never becoming florid or over-done. I think the only niggle I have is that is wasn’t long enough — it would have been great to learn more about the characters and their contexts, to explore the world more. Perhaps there are more stories to come in the future? Regardless, Vo manages to scatter moments of insight, large and small, throughout the text. Yes, I would have liked a longer book, but it is nevertheless a well-realized setting.
If you are looking for a quick read that will both engage and entertain, then The Empress of Salt and Fortune should suit your needs perfectly. Elegantly written, this is a very good read. Recommended.