The Empress of Salt and Fortune - Nghi Vo

It feels as though I'm giving this book 4 stars and not 5 primarily because it's a novella and not novel-length, however I want to think there's more to it than that -  in some ways, it's more about the nature of the way the story gets told, which didn't 100% work for me but I could see why the author had chosen to do it that way...

 

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is one of those books which initially looked like it would hit a large number of my buttons (once I'd overlooked the novella issue): non-European setting, outsider perspective and a talking bird to cap it all off. Mostly, it did what I wanted, using the main character of Rabbit to talk about what happened without ever really giving everything away as she did so and Chih as the character who gets to pick away at what doesn't quite fit. Any time there's a hoopoe involved too, I'm right there (they're one of my favourite birds), so the decision to make Almost Brilliant a bird of that species was going to be a winner all the way. 

 

We never actually meet the eponymous Empress, only get to know her through the point of view of others: the servant who loves her, the minister who despises her for her foreignness, the items she has left behind which Chih is cataloguing. All we know initially is that she was sent from elsewhere to form an alliance, then exiled to this particular place when she had done her duty and produced a son and heir. What the author does cleverly at this stage is structure the storyline so that the outcome is inevitable but not obvious, with little details thrown in along the way to distract. 

 

All in all, I enjoyed reading The Empress of Salt and Fortune and wished it had been longer, which is so often my lament where novellas are concerned. The other thing which didn't completely work for me was Chih's flat acceptance of everything they're told, which seemed at odds with their employment as an archivist. However, I hope the author is turning her hand to longer works and look forward to checking them out if she does.