It’s become my habit to listen to audio books whenever I have chores to do or a tedious online task to perform. Today I borrowed copies of Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain from my local library.
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.
Oh, I loved this. It starts out slow and the reader is left wondering why they’re being told the seemingly random story. But it all comes together marvelously in the end. While it’s true that women in aristocracies were often denied open power, to assume and accept that they were therefore powerless is to uncritically accept a falsehood simply by virtue of how often it’s been repeated. I love how Vo plays with that here. I love how In-yo plays with it, for that matter.
I did sometime miss the transition from the current time of the story, where Rabbit is telling her story, to the past or the story she’s telling (or if we’re being given the writings she referenced at one point). But that is a small matter in the larger scheme of things.
Lastly, the narrator did a marvelous job.
The cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover—a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty—and discover how truth can survive becoming history.
I admit I didn’t love this book quite as much as I did The Empress of Salt and Fortune, but it is still a marvelously well done story. I love the way Vo tells the same story from two perspectives, each fundamentally anchored in ostensibly the same events but interpreted in drastically different ways. But you also never lose sight of the fact that they’re discussing what might be a myth, something has certainly moved into the realm of the mythological. This along side the heightened tension of the current danger to the cleric from the tigers countered well. All in all, I’ll be looking for more of Vo’s work and would happily listen to another book narrated by Kay.